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Roman Legions: 10 Terrifying Facts

local farmers

By Durga PrasadPublished about a year ago 8 min read


Their military training In the early days of Rome, this army consisted only of local farmers, who were quickly called into action to fight clashes with neighboring colonies. However, this all changed in 390 BC, when the Gallic army completely defeated the Romans and then descended on the city itself. They continued to pound and pillage Rome for the next six months until they were finally paid to leave. The Romans had an awakening that changed their destiny forever. They spent the following centuries developing their legions, systematically training them, and organizing a professional war machine that no one had ever seen before. There were endless exercises and marches until exhaustion. Roman soldiers participated in weapons drills every morning and practiced hand-to-hand combat with wooden swords, spears, and shields that were twice as heavy as their real-life counterparts. Part of their daily training also included a 19-mile march, covered in five hours. They carried a full pack of weapons, a shield, rations of food, cooking equipment, a short spade, and their personal gear. No other army in the world received such rigorous training at the time, which gave the Roman legions a huge advantage in warfare.


Discipline through fear Following literal orders and not questioning superiors is something that most people have not naturally built into their consciousness. Severe punishments for even the most minor crimes were common in the Roman legion. Soldiers were often stoned to death by fellow combatants for being cowards in battle or even falling asleep at their posts while on guard duty. Small crimes were dealt with by centurions (military officers), who always carried vine branches to beat their legionnaires. And since these officers were held directly responsible for the conduct of the men serving under them, flogging was common in the Roman military camp. But this merciless treatment proved useful time and time again as the men became increasingly interdependent and dependent on each other as they survived the extremely harsh conditions they endured on the outskirts of the Empire. In short, this fear-infused discipline gave Roman soldiers a much better chance of survival if they blindly obeyed their superiors than if they disobeyed.


Decimation One particularly cruel punishment for any legion was reduction, and it was as bad as it sounds. The word itself comes from a Roman military disciplinary measure used for large groups of soldiers guilty of mutiny, treason, or desertion. Decimo is derived from Latin and means "remove one tenth". They divided the culprits into groups of ten and asked them to raise straws. The soldier who drew the short straw had to kill the other nine by killing him. And since the decision of who would die was left to chance, all soldiers, regardless of their level of involvement or rank, were responsible for the execution. But since killing ten percent of an army is never a good idea, attrition never became common practice.


Weapons and armor As Rome expanded its borders, the army became the standard equipment provided by the state. Their first line of defense was a chain-pot shirt. The main advantages of chain mail were its lightness and the fact that it offered good protection against being struck by swords. In the 1st century AD, however, chain mail was partially replaced by segmented plate armor. Although heavier and more maintenance-intensive, plate armor offered much more protection against penetration. The Roman helmet was redesigned and improved over the centuries. It has been designed to provide maximum protection without interfering with the senses. It had large cheek pieces to protect the side of the face but not to cover the ears so that the soldiers could hear the orders given by the centurions. Brushes, often made of wool or sometimes feathers, were intended to make the wearer look bigger and fiercer and to distinguish the level. Additional protection came from the Roman shield. It was made of layers of wood glued together and covered with leather and metal. The shield was also curved, which offered more protection to the sides. Because of its size, the shield was also used as an offensive weapon and worked well with the Roman short sword.


Battle tactics and formations But what really made the Roman legions the best fighting force in the entire ancient world was the structural nature of the army and the formations used in battle. The legion consisted of 4,800 men, divided into 10,480 cohorts, which in turn included six hundred and eighty soldiers, each commanded by a centurion. This highly structured format gave the army both unity in the ranks and great coordination on the battlefield. Most Roman barbarians were hostile, fighting in loose formations with each warrior seeking individual glory. But each of the 4,800 soldiers of the Roman legion had a specific role in the basic strategy. A typical attack would start from a distance, with catapults pelting enemies with rocks and iron bolts. Then the legionaries launched their spears into the water. Made with a wooden handle and a long iron point, the Pilum, as the Romans called it, bent on impact, preventing the enemy from throwing it back. Then the soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, drew their swords, and began to advance like a moving wall of death and destruction. With the shield extending from their chins almost to their ankles, the group of unorganized tribes couldn't do much.


Naval Battles "On Land" Skilled Roman soldiers were few in the face of naval warfare. As Rome took control of most of the Italian peninsula, they turned their attention to the sea. Here they met the Carthaginians, and in 264 BC, the First Punic War began. That 23-year conflict between the two Mediterranean powers was over the control of the strategically important islands of Sicily and Corsica. While Carthage boasted a large military fleet, Rome did not. However, the Romans quickly solved this shortcoming by building their own navy based on a model stolen from the Carthaginians. Despite their lack of real sea experience, the legionnaires began to practice rowing together on dry land. Being experienced hand-to-hand combatants, they came up with the ingenious invention of turning naval battles into land battles. That secret weapon was the Corvus, a 4-foot-long beam with a 36-foot-wide bridge that can be raised or lowered as desired. It had small railings on each side and a metal spike on the back that pierced the Carthaginian ship's deck and held it in place. With this, the Romans were able to defeat their enemies and win the war.


Bellum Gallium The Gallic Wars, or Bellum Gallium, were campaigns led by Roman legions under Julius Caesar against the Gaul's living in parts of present-day France, Belgium, and Switzerland. These wars lasted from 58 BC to 52 BC and culminated in the final victory of Rome and the expansion of the Roman Republic throughout Gaul. But those wars were fought not for the glory of Rome itself but for Caesar's own political aspirations. He recruited and paid his legions, which made the soldiers extremely devoted to him and him alone. Although the region was home to approximately 15–20 million people, his success was largely due to the fact that the Gaul's were a loose tribal army that lacked real discipline and cohesion. In this way, Caesar had to fight each group of warriors as he encountered them, and the campaign lasted much longer than he originally thought. Vercingetorix, "Winner of the Hundred Battles", was finally able to rally the tribes against the Roman legions, but it was too late. At the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC, Vercingetorix almost defeated Caesar but ultimately lost the battle. When the Romans conquered Gaul, over a million Celts lay dead, and another 500,000 were sent into slavery.


The crucified Romans were known for the way they treated and destroyed anyone who stood in the way of their absolute dominance. One particular way they dealt with people they saw as a threat to the Roman way of life was through crucifixion. This particularly cruel form of punishment was often used as a means of torture and to send a message. People who were crucified were often accused of rebellion or conspiracy. Jesus was crucified for the same reason, not for his religious teachings. Besides him, two other men were also considered rebels, not thieves. Although the Romans did not invent this horrible practise, they lived well with it. During the Spartacus Rebellion in 72 BC, 6,000 captured rebels were crucified. Since about 40 percent of the Roman population were slaves, and Spartacus and the other rebels were slaves themselves, their crucifixion was a clear message to those still alive: "Do not stir up strife, for you too will be the end."


Praetorian Guard Of all the Roman legions, the most powerful was the Praetorian Guard, based in Rome itself. And often, the praetorians had the power of life and death over the emperors themselves. They were born as elite soldiers who protected the generals during the Roman Republic. But the Praetorian Guard itself did not officially appear until Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 BC. They served as the emperor's bodyguards, emergency firefighters, secret police, crowd control agents, and even fought in the arena to showcase their talent to the masses. But as Rome's power grew, so did its corruption and intrigue. And the Praetorian Guard was often in the middle of it all. Although their task was to ensure the interests of the emperor, they only replaced him when those interests did not align with their own. The frustrated Praetorians famously planned the assassination of Caligula in AD 41. The Praetorians killed many other emperors. In 193 AD, they even put the crown up for auction. One man, Didius Julianus, won by promising them each a bribe of five years' wages. But, unable to give birth, she was also murdered 66 days later. In 306 AD, the Praetorians made one last attempt to play the role of kingmaker by supporting Maxentius as Western Roman Emperor. Constantine defeated them at the Battle of Milvius Bridge in 312 and then disbanded the Guard.


The Making and Breaking of an Empire Undoubtedly, the Roman Empire at its full strength was formed by the many legions that fought and died for it. But in the end, the army won Rome. As we have seen so far, Rome was a highly militarized society with an army of around 130,000 soldiers. One of the men, the eighth, was in the army. And while at first only men of property were allowed to fight for the honor of Rome, as it expanded beyond the Italian peninsula, the ranks were opened to many more. Foreigners were recruited as helpers, and after 25 years of struggle, they were granted citizenship. Because these men were not Roman citizens, they did not believe in the idea of Rome and the "civilization" that came with it. Most don't even see the city itself. Now, many soldiers were less interested in defending it and gained their wealth through spoils. Their allegiance was no longer to a city or a kingdom but to the generals under whom they served, as with Caesar and his legions. The army generals then realized that they could become emperors if they marched on Rome, which they often did. By AD 395, the empire would have been divided into eastern and western parts, and by AD 476, only the eastern part would have survived. The Eastern Roman Empire would rule from Constantinople and be the dominant power in the region for the next 1,200 years.


About the Creator

Durga Prasad

My "spare" time is spent creating for myself and writing for others.

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