Rome’s military history is famously represented by the disciplined and professional legionnaires of the mighty legions, commanded by some of the best leaders of all time, like Julius Caesar, Scipio or Agricola.
These legions conquered and established one of the biggest and greatest empires the world has ever seen and maintained it for over a thousand years (if we count the Byzantines and their end in 1453 as the definitive end of Roman rule, a concept that is arguable, to say the least.).
In this series of articles, we shall analyze and follow all the developments made by the Roman Army during its long history. It goes without saying that the Romans adapted their military tactics and organization to their new necessities, but on this occasion, we see an army that was heavily influenced by the Greeks and Etruscans, this is, an army based on the hoplitic system. Let’s dig a bit further.
Based on a non-professional Greek-style army, the Romans used a very generical kind of army for the timeline we are examining, this meaning that hoplites and other types of spearmen were the unit of choice for the early conflicts that the Eternal City had to face during its earlier dates. However, the Romans would add some elements of their own, especially regarding its organization, making it different in some aspects to the Greek system.
This system was first introduced in 550 BC by the king Servius Tullius, and lasted until 290 BC, during the early/mid stages of the Roman Republic. In this first article of the evolution of the Roman Army, we are going to review the previously underlined timeline and examine the organization of this Early Roman Army, also called Regal Army (Regal as a reference to the Roman Kingdom).
The Roman Army during this ancient time of its history was far from what we later came to know as the almighty legions, whose fierce advance throughout the Mediterranean sphere carved one of the greatest empires in history.
In the year 550 B.C, Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, instituted the first instance of a Roman national army (this means that it did not have to rely on war-bands and mercenaries), which was greatly influenced by the Greek and Etruscan hoplite system, both in armour and in battle doctrines.
This gave the Romans the tools they needed to defend their position during the great power struggles that ravaged the Italian Peninsula during this timeline, where Rome wasn’t a major player yet, overshadowed by others like the Etruscans, a civilization that by this point in time, was far more developed and consolidated than Rome.
Composition of the Army
This Regal Army didn’t have professional forces but instead levied adult males from the population of Rome in times of war. In such cases, 9.000 men were called to arms and were divided into different branches of the army.
The main force was composed by 6.000 heavily armoured infantry (the Roman equivalent of the Etruscan/Greek hoplite) and supported by 2.400 lightly armoured infantrymen, who were named “velites” (name and unit that would live on during the Republic). The army was then completed by a force of 600 horsemen, named “equites celeres”, also maintained during the Polybian reforms in times of the Republic.
This force was commanded by the king, thus receiving the name of “Royal Legion”, and it was divided into smaller units called “centurias”, each one composed by 100 men. In times of great need, something unusual in this relatively peaceful period of Roman history, the army could be expanded to include close to 20.000 men, not being any information that the latter was ever surpassed.
Organization of the Early Roman Army
“Classem”. The new levy system
The way to divide the levies into their corresponding unit types was also influenced by the Greeks, where the levies had to pay for their equipment.
The cavalry force of the legion was composed by patricians, the richest and most powerful men in the city. The “hoplites” were composed by what the Romans called “classem”, citizens that we’re able to afford the armour and weaponry of their class. The ones who weren’t able to do so were called “infra classem”, and were relegated to the “velites”.
The number of eligible men and their wealth was measured with the “census”, being Tullius the first one to install this in Rome’s history.
Wealth was not only relevant for the purchase of armour and weapons, but was also important for the placement of each individual in a specific class, and combined with the census, it created the 193 centuries (previously mentioned with their Latin name of “centurias”) in which all the adult male citizens of Rome were included (193 is the number of “centurias” during the reign of Servius Tullius).
These “centurias” were organized in 5 classes, depending on the amount of wealth each one had, and were also divided between “iuniores” and “seniores”, the young and the elder respectively.
In an attempt to be fair, Tullius established that the wealthier classes had to form the most number of centuries (80 centuries out of 193 were part of the first class) so that they would be the ones who had to contribute more money and manpower to the war effort. The way the levies were issued was by dividing the number of necessary soldiers with the existing centuries.
“In pursuance of this arrangement he levied troops according to the division of the centuries, and imposed taxes in proportion to the valuation of their possessions. For instance, whenever he had occasion to raise ten thousand men, or, if it should so happen, twenty thousand, he would divide that number among the hundred and ninety-three centuries and then order each century to furnish the number of men that fell to its share.”Dionysius of Halicarnassus
The financial aspect of the military campaigns followed a similar process than the recruitment system: After an estimated cost of both military armament and provisions for the campaign, the sum was then divided between the centuries, taking into consideration the wealth of each class for a balanced war-tax.
Obviously, the armament varied between classes, since not everyone could afford the same weaponry and armour. According to classes, this was the distribution of armament:
- Hoplites of the first-class wore a helmet (“galea“), breastplate (“lorica“), greaves (“ocreae“) and a round shield (“clipeum“). They were also armed with a sword (“gladius“) and a spear (“hasta“). Only members of the first-class could be part of the cavalry, so they also had access to horses.
- Hoplites of the second-class didn’t wear the breastplate, and instead of using a round shield, they used a larger rectangular shield called “scutum“.
- Hoplites of the third-class used the same equipment as the men of the second-class with the exception of greaves.
- The men of the fourt-class wore no armour and were not considered as hoplites. Their only armament consisted of the spear and the use of javelins (“uerutum“).
- The fifth-class corresponds to the classical image of the skirmisher during this timeline, this being slingers. As such, they were only armed with slings (“fundae“) that gave them their iconic name of “funditores“.
The equipment that each class received depended on the amount of money they contributed to the war-tax, being the first class the one that, as we said previously, provided the most amount of money, and thus receiving in return the better equipment of all classes.
“The next day the consuls, after burning their own dead, gathered up the spoils (…) and carried off the captives, whom they had taken in considerable numbers, and the booty, in addition to the plunder taken by the soldiers. This booty having being sold at public auction, all the citizens received back the amount of the contributions which they had severally paid for the equipment of the expedition.”Titus Livius
The financial aspect of the Early Roman Army
The war-tax was then given back to the soldiers after a victorious campaign, who were also allowed to sell all of their captured goods. In times of great need, the State equipped at its own cost the men that weren’t economically eligible to be levied for the army, but in every case, the armament belonged to the State and was distributed and then taken back, not allowing to have armed citizens within the city walls.
This tradition outlived the monarchy, and instead of being a responsibility of the king, it became a responsibility of the two consuls from the recently born Republic (509 BC).
The law against plebs carrying weapons inside the city was soon to follow, even for the citizens that paid for those weapons for any given military campaign. After the end of the campaign, the weapons were gathered and then kept in warehouses controlled by the political authorities, as a way to prevent any internal conflicts.
This was caused for the lasting fear that both kings and senators had for a conflict between plebs and patricians (that would later come to happen in 500 BC, and lasted until 287 BC, in what later came to be called “Struggle of the Orders”), and also to prevent any overly ambitious patrician to arm a host of followers to seize power.
This system remained unaltered until 406 BC, where the Roman Republic introduced a salary for the Roman soldiers, thus adding a new tax to the previously explained war tax, called “stipendium tributum”, paid only by the citizens who stayed in Rome and didn’t fight in any given campaign. Soldiers didn’t have to pay this tax of course, but they still had to pay the basic war-tax, only after returning from the campaign.
This might seem fair, but in many cases, soldiers found themselves without a sufficient amount of money to pay this war-tax. Roman soldiers were, above all, citizens, not professional soldiers, and thus had a job or lands to attend to.
In the event of long campaigns, the continuous purchase of armament and supplies made it that when they did return home, the amount of money they had to pay from the war-tax was considerably higher than the money they received from the salary, and this problem wouldn’t be addressed properly until the soldiers became part of a professional army (during the reign of Augustus).
“(…) And now, to crown all, they (the soldiers) even had to pay a war-tax, so that when they returned, worn out by toil and wounds, and last of all by age, and found all their land untilled through want of the owner’s care, they had to meet his demand out of their wasted property and return to the State their pay as soldiers many times over (…)”Titus Livius
Evolution. The end of the hoplitic system
This system would live on until the end of the Samnite Wars (290 BC), being then replaced by the Polybian System, where the static-army composition, heavily based on a strong front line of spearmen, would forever disappear from the Roman way of fighting. Mobile warfare had hereby begun.
From the foundation of Rome until 290 BC, the Regal Army helped the State to secure its starting position at first, and then consolidate itself as the dominant Latin powerhouse, but still on the struggle for domination over the Italian Peninsula.
The evolution of the Early Roman Army mirrored the cultural and political evolution that the Eternal City endured during its initial moments, and after consolidating the Republic as a strong political entity, and putting an end to the previously mentioned Struggle of the Orders, the Roman Army during the mid-Republic would establish its superiority over Italy, and turn its eyes towards all neighbouring states.
But this will be a story for another time.
The Roman Army during this era was very basic and generical for this particular timeline, and not the Army that later allowed Rome to conquer a vast Empire. It appears that the Early Roman Army was equipped to withstand and fight against neighbouring enemies such as the Etruscans and Samnites.
By the end of this period after the last Samnite War, threats from foreign powers started to come, such as Epirus or Carthage, giving the Romans the boost they needed to advance and evolve their way of waging war. The first baptism of fire of the Polybian Army would be against King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who invaded the Italian Peninsula and soon faced the Romans, being narrowly defeated by the rising Latin powerhouse.
Even though this period of Roman History showcases an army that is quite antique and generic, with barely any outstanding elements (safe for the “classem” system, the “census” used to define it, and the financial aspect of the army), it plays a huge role in understanding the remarkable transition and evolution undertaken by Rome.
- Keppie Lawrence, 1984, The making of the Roman Army, London. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Cornell Tim, 1995, The beginnings of Rome, London. Routledge.
- Titus Livius, “Av Urbe Condita”.
- Dionysus of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities.