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Roman infantry helmet (Imperial Gallic type). Late 1st century
Coin showing (obverse) head of the late Roman emperor Julian (ruled AD 361-3) wearing diadem and (reverse) soldier bearing standard holding kneeling captive by the hair and legend VIRTUS EXERCITUS ROMANORUM ("Courage of the Roman army"). Gold solidus. Sirmium mint

The Roman army (Latin: exercitus Romanorum) is the generic term for the terrestrial armed forces deployed by the kingdom of Rome (to ca. 500 BC), the Roman Republic (500-31 BC), the Roman Empire (31 BC - AD 476) and its successor, the Byzantine empire (476-1453). It is thus a term that spans approximately 2,000 years, during which the Roman armed forces underwent numerous permutations in composition, organisation, equipment and tactics, while conserving a core of lasting traditions.


Historical Phases

In terms of its development, the Roman army was divided into the following 8 broad historical phases:

  1. The Early Roman army of the Roman kingdom and of the early Republic (to ca. 300 BC). During this period, it has been suggested that the Roman army followed Etruscan or Greek models of organisation and equipment. The early Roman army was based on an annual levy or conscription of part-time soldiers, hence the term legion for the basic Roman military unit (derived from legere, "to levy").
  2. The Manipular Roman army (a.k.a. as the "Polybian army after the Greek historian Polybius, who provides the most detailed extant description of this phase) of the mid-Republican period (ca. 300-88 BC). During this period, the Romans, while maintaining the levy system, adopted the Samnite manipular organisation for their legions and also bound all the other peninsular Italian states into a permanent military alliance (see Socii). The latter would provide an equal number of levies Roman army]] (88 - 30 BC), the transition from the citizen-levy army of the Republic and the professional standing army of the Empire.
  3. The Caesarian Roman army During this period, quasi-standing armies were commanded by the imperatores, powerful warlords such as Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Antony, who contested supreme power in numerous civil wars. As a result of the Social War (91-88 BC), all Italians were granted Roman citizenship and the old allied alae were abolished and its members integrated into the legions. Also, the citizen-cavalry of the Republic was much reduced in number and replaced by indigenous cavalry from the Roman provinces.
  4. The Imperial Roman army (30 BC to AD 284), when the Republican system of temporary levies was replaced by a standing professional army of mainly volunteers, as established by the first Roman emperor, Augustus (sole ruler 30 BC - AD 14). The legions, now almost entirely large heavy infantry formations of 5,000-6,000 men) were still open only to Roman citizens (i.e. mainly the inhabitants of Italy and Roman colonies until AD 212). They were now flanked by the auxilia, a corps recruited mainly from peregrini, imperial subjects who did not hold Roman citizenship (the great majority of the empire's inhabitants until 212, when all were granted citizenship). The auxilia were divided into much smaller formations of roughly cohort size (ca. 500 men). These contained not only heavy infantry as the legions, but also light infantry, heavy and light cavalry, archers and slingers. Both legions and auxilia regiments were mostly stationed along the empire's borders.
  5. The Late Roman army (284-476 and its continuation, in the surviving eastern half of the empire, as the East Roman army to 641). In this phase, crystalised by the reforms of the emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305), the Roman army returned to systematic conscription for most of its recruitment of citizens, while admitting large numbers of non-citizen barbarian volunteers. However, the army remained full-time professional and did not return to the short-term levies of the Republic. The old dual organisation of legions and auxilia was abandoned, with citizens and non-citizens now serving in the same units. The old legions were broken up into cohort or even smaller sizes. At the same a substantial proportion of the army's effectives were stationed in the interior of the empire, in the form of comitatus praesentales, armies that escorted the emperors.
  6. The Byzantine army (641-1071), is the army of the Byzantine state in its classical form (i.e. after the permanent loss of its Near Eastern and North African territories to the Arab conquests after 641). This army was based on conscription of professional troops in the themes structure characteristic of this period.
  7. The Komnenian Byzantine army, named after the Comneni dynasty, or medieval Byzantine army (1071-1204). This was the army of Byzantium after the permanent loss of its traditional main recruiting ground of Anatolia to the Turks following the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, until the fall of Constantinople to the Western crusaders in 1204. This army was chracterised by a large number of mercenary regiments composed of troops of foreign origin such as the Varangian Guard of Anglo-Saxons. However, the old theme-based system of conscription continued.
  8. The Palaiologan Byzantine army, named after the dynasty of the Palaiologi (1259-1453), which ruled Byzantium between the recovery of Constantinople from the Crusaders and its fall to the Turks in 1453. During this final phase, Byzantium was little more than a rich city-state that hired foreign mercenary bands for its defence. Thus the Byzantine army finally lost any meaningful connection with the standing imperial Roman army.

This article contains summaries of the historical phases above, and their interaction with the political and social development of the Roman state. Detailed information on each phase is contained in the linked dedicated article. Readers seeking discussion of the Roman army by theme, rather than by chronological phase, should consult the following articles:



Strategy and tactics

  • Equipment & other

Early Roman army (to ca. 338 BC)

The Early Roman army refers to the army deployed by ancient Rome during its Regal Era and its early Republic, until ca. 300 BC, when the so-called "Polybian" or manipular legion was introduced.

The early Roman army was based on a compulsory levy from adult male citizens which was held at the start of each campaigning season in years when war was in progress. There were probably no standing or professional forces. During the Regal Era (to ca. 500 BC), the standard levy was probably of 9,000 men, consisting of 6,000 heavily-armed infantry (probably Greek-style hoplites), plus 2,400 light-armed infantry (velites) and 600 light cavalry (equites celeres). When the kings were replaced by two annually-elected praetores in ca. 500 BC, the standard levy remained of the same size, but was now divided equally between the Praetors, each commanding one legion of 4,500 men.

In 493 BC, shortly after the establishment of the Roman Republic, Rome concluded a treaty of military alliance (the foedus Cassianum), with the other Latin city-states which provided for each party to provide an equal force for campaigns under unified command. This dual structure (Romans and allies) served as the template for the Republic's army until 88 BC.

Manipular Roman army (338 - 88 BC)

The central feature of the Polybian army was the manipular organisation of its battle-line. Instead a single, large mass (the phalanx) as in the Early Roman army, the Romans now drew up in three lines consisting of small units (maniples) of 120 men, arrayed in chessboard fashion, giving much greater tactical strength and flexibility. This structure was probably introduced in ca. 300 BC during the Samnite Wars. Also probably dating from this period was the regular accompaniment of each legion by an non-citizen formation of roughly equal size, the ala, recruited from Rome's Italian allies, or socii. The latter were ca. 150 autonomous states which were bound by a treaty of perpetual military alliance with Rome. Their sole obligation was to supply to the Roman army, on demand, a number of fully-equipped troops up to a specified maximum each year.

The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) saw the addition of a third element to the existing dual Roman/Italian structure: non-Italian mercenaries with specialist skills lacking in the legions and alae: Numidian light cavalry, Cretan archers, and slingers from the Balearic islands. From this time, these units always accompanied Roman armies.

The Republican army of this period, like its earlier forebear, did not maintain standing or professional military forces, but levied them, by compulsory conscription, as required for each campaigning season and disbanded thereafter (although formations could be kept in being over winter during major wars). The standard levy was doubled during the Samnite Wars to 4 legions (2 per Consul), for a total of ca. 18,000 Roman troops and 4 allied alae of similar size. Service in the legions was limited to property-owning Roman citizens, normally those known as iuniores (age 16-46). The army's senior officers, including its commanders-in-chief, the Roman Consuls, were all elected annually at the People's Assembly. Only equites (members of the Roman knightly order) were eligible to serve as senior officers. Iuniores of the highest social classes (equites and the First Class of commoners) provided the legion's cavalry, the other classes the legionary infantry. The proletarii (those assessed at under 400 drachmae wealth) were ineligible for legionary service and were assigned to the fleets as oarsmen. Elders, vagrants, freedmen, slaves and convicts were excluded from the military levy, save in emergencies.

The legionary cavalry also changed, probably around 300 BC onwards from the light, unarmoured horse of the early army to a heavy force with metal armour (bronze cuirasses and,later,chain-mail shirts). Contrary to a long-held view, the cavalry of the mid-Republic was a highly effective force that generally prevailed against strong enemy cavalry forces (both Gallic and Greek) until it was decisively beaten by the Carthaginian general Hannibal's horsemen during the second Punic War. This was due to Hannibal's greater operational flexibility owing to his Numidian light cavalry.

The Polybian army's operations during its existence can be divided into 3 broad phases. (1) The struggle for hegemony over Italy, especially against the Samnite League (338-264 BC); (2) the struggle with Carthage for hegemony in the western Mediterranean Sea (264-201 BC); and the struggle against the Hellenistic monarchies for control of the eastern Mediterranean (201-91 BC).

For the vast majority of the period of its existence, the Polybian levy was at war. This led to great strains on Roman and Italian manpower, but forged a superb fighting machine. During the Second Punic War, fully two-thirds of Roman iuniores were under arms continuously. In the period after the defeat of Carthage in 201 BC, the army was campaigning exclusively outside Italy, resulting in its men being away from their home plots of land for many years at a stretch. They were assuaged by the large amounts of booty that they shared after victories in the rich eastern theatre. But in Italy, the ever-increasing concentration of public lands in the hands of big landowners, and the consequent dispplacement of the soldiers' families, led to great unrest and demands for land redistribution. This was successfully achieved, but resulted in the disaffection of Rome's Italian allies, who as non-citizens were excluded from the redistribution. This led to the mass revolt of the socii and the Social War (91-88 BC). The result was the grant of Roman citizenship to all Italians and the end of the Polybian army's dual structure: the alae were abolished and the socii recruited into the legions.

"Caesarian" Roman army (88-30 BC)

Imperial Roman army (30 BC - AD 284)

The regular army of the Principate was established by the founder–emperor Augustus (ruled 30 BC – 14 AD) and survived until the end of the 3rd century. The regular army consisted of two distinct corps, both being made up of mainly volunteer professionals.

The elite legions were large infantry formations, varying between 25 and 33 in number, of ca. 5,500 men each (all infantry save a small cavalry arm of 120) which admitted only Roman citizens.[1] The auxilia consisted of around 400 much smaller units of ca. 500 men each (a minority were up to 1,000 strong), which were divided into approximately 100 cavalry alae, 100 infantry cohortes and 200 mixed cavalry/infantry units or cohortes equitatae.[2] Some auxilia regiments were designated sagittariorum, meaning that they specialised in archery. The auxilia thus contained almost all the Roman army's cavalry and archers, as well as (from the late 1st century onwards) approximately the same number of foot soldiers as the legions.[3] The auxilia were mainly recruited from the peregrini: provincial subjects of the empire who did not hold Roman citizenship, but the auxilia also admitted Roman citizens and possibly barbari, the Roman term for peoples living outside the empire's borders.[4] At this time both legions and auxilia were almost all based in frontier provinces.[5] The only substantial military force at the immediate disposal of the emperor was the elite Praetorian Guard of 10,000 men which was based in Rome.[6]

The senior officers of the army were, until the 3rd century, mainly from the Italian aristocracy. This was divided into two orders, the senatorial order (ordo senatorius), consisting of the ca. 600 sitting members of the Roman Senate and their sons and grandsons, and the more numerous (several thousand-strong) equites or "knights".

Hereditary senators and equites combined military service with civilian posts, a career path known as the cursus honorum, typically starting with a period of junior administrative posts in Rome, followed by 5–10 years in the military and a final period of senior positions in the either the provinces or Rome.[7] This tiny, tightly-knit ruling oligarchy of under 10,000 men monopolised political, military and economic power in an empire of ca. 60 million inhabitants and achieved a remarkable degree of political stability. During the first 200 years of its existence (30 BC – 180 AD), the empire suffered only one major episode of civil strife (the Civil War of 68–9). Otherwise, usurpation attempts by provincial governors were few and swiftly suppressed.

As regards the military, members of the senatorial order (senatorii) exclusively filled the following posts:

(a) legatus Augusti pro praetore (provincial governor of a border province, who was commander-in-chief of the military forces deployed there as well as heading the civil administration)
(b) legatus legionis (legion commander)
(c) tribunus militum laticlavius (legion deputy commander).[8]

The equites provided:

(a) the governors (procuratores) of Egypt and of a few minor provinces
(b) the two praefecti praetorio (commanders of the Praetorian Guard)
(c) a legion's praefectus castrorum (3rd-in-command) and its remaining five tribuni militum (senior staff officers)
(d) the praefecti (commanders) of the auxiliary regiments.[9]

By the late 1st century, a distinct equestrian group, non-Italian and military in character, became established. This was a result of the established custom whereby the emperor elevated the primuspilus (chief centurion) of each legion to equestrian rank on completion of his year in office. This resulted in some 30 career soldiers, mostly non-Italian and risen from the ranks, joining the aristocracy each year.[10] Far less wealthy than their Italian counterparts, many such equites belonged to families that provided career soldiers for generations. Prominent among them were Romanised Illyrians, the descendants of the Illyrian-speaking tribes that inhabited the Roman provinces of Pannonia (W Hungary/Slovenia), Dalmatia (Croatia/Bosnia) and Moesia Superior (Serbia), together with the neighbouring Thracians of Moesia Inferior (N Bulgaria) and Macedonia provinces. From the time of Domitian (ruled 81–96), when over half the Roman army was deployed in the Danubian regions, the Illyrian and Thracian provinces became the most important recruiting ground of the auxilia and later the legions.[11]

Late Roman army/East Roman army (284 - 641)

The Late Roman army is the term used to denote the military forces of the Roman Empire from the accession of Emperor Diocletian in 284 until the Empire's definitive division into Eastern and Western halves in 395. A few decades afterwards, the Western army disintegrated as the Western empire collapsed. The East Roman army, on the other hand, continued intact and essentially unchanged until its reorganization by themes and transformation into the Byzantine army in the 7th century. The term "late Roman army" is often used to include the East Roman army.

The army of the Principate underwent a significant transformation as a result of the chaotic 3rd century. Unlike the Principate army, the army of the 4th century was heavily dependent on conscription and its soldiers were more poorly remunerated than in the 2nd century. Barbarians from outside the empire probably supplied a much larger proportion of the late army's recruits than in the army of the 1st and 2nd centuries.

The army of the 4th century was probably no larger than that of the 2nd. The main change in structure was the establishment of large armies that accompanied the emperors (comitatus praesentales) and were generally based away from the frontiers. Their primary function was to deter usurpations. The legions were split up into smaller units comparable in size to the auxiliary regiments of the Principate. In parallel, legionary armour and equipment were abandoned in favour of auxiliary equipment. Infantry adopted the more protective equipment of the Principate cavalry.

The role of cavalry in the late army does not appear to have been enhanced as compared with the army of the Principate. The evidence is that cavalry was much the same proportion of overall army numbers as in the 2nd century and that its tactical role and prestige remained similar. Indeed, the cavalry acquired a reputation for incompetence and cowardice for their role in three major battles in mid-4th century. In contrast, the infantry retained its traditional reputation for excellence.

The 3rd and 4th centuries saw the upgrading of many existing border forts to make them more defensible, as well as the construction of new forts with much higher defensive specifications. The interpretation of this trend has fuelled an ongoing debate whether the army adopted a defence-in-depth strategy or continued the same posture of "forward defence" as in the early Principate. Many elements of the late army's defence posture were similar to those associated with forward defence, such as a loser forward location of forts, frequent cross-border operations, and external buffer-zones of allied barbarian tribes. Whatever the defence strategy, it was apparently less successful in preventing barbarian incursions than in the 1st and 2nd centuries. This may have been due to heavier barbarian pressure, and/or to the practice of keeping large armies of the best troops in the interior, depriving the border forces of sufficient support.

Byzantine army (641 - 1071)

Komnenian Byzantine army (1071 - 1204)

Palaiologan Byzantine army (1261-1453)


  1. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 50, 78
  2. ^ Holder (2003) 120
  3. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 56–8
  4. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 80
  5. ^ Holder (2003) 145
  6. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 58
  7. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 60, 66
  8. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 60
  9. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 64–5
  10. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 65–6
  11. ^ Tomlin (1988) 109

See also

Simple English

The Roman army means the military of ancient Rome, the forces used by the Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic and later Roman Empire. Its infantry for much of its history, was the Roman legion. Rome also had a navy. The size of the army in the late Roman Empire was about 128,000 - 179,200 men. It was very well organized. The main Roman soldiers in the Empire were the legionaries. There were, of course, other soldiers in the army; these were called the auxilia. Auxilia were non-citizens who mainly came from the provinces. They were paid less than legionaries but at the end of their service they were given Roman citizenship.


Weapons and equipment

type armor.]]

In an early to mid-Republican era, legionaries usually bought their own gear. Hastati, the first line of soldiers, usually had breastplates, called a cuirass, and some wore lorica hamata, or chainmail. The richer principes, the second line of soldiers, could afford lorica hamata but they were sometimes seen wearing the cheaper cuirasses. Both hastati and principes were each armed with a gladius - a short, 60 centimeter sword - and each had two pila - short spears. The third line of soldiers, the Triarii, had a hasta, a two meter long spear. They were also armed with the gladius and had an early form of the lorica segmenta or iron band armor. All legionaries had a large rectangular shield, the scutum, which had rounded corners. By the late Republican period, all legionaries carried a gladius, two pila, a new, larger scutum, and wore chainmail. Lorica segmenta was only commonly worn between the 2nd and 3rd century AD.


The roman soldiers had to do many hard tasks to get in the army.Like running a Marathon.


The main thing a member of the Roman Army needed was fitness. Soldiers were expected to march about 36km (24 miles) in 5 hours. They also had to be fit to be able to fight well and cope with any injuries.

Group training

New soldiers would do two sessions of military drill and give their oath of loyalty to their Commander and Emperor. Every day the whole of the legion would practice running, jumping, sword fighting and javelin throwing.

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