Description of the Roman Army
Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition. Robert A. Guisepi: Author of Ancient Voices
(Re-printed by permission)
"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war."
The Works of Flavius Josephus. (London: 1906).
Now here one cannot but admire at the precaution of the Romans, in providing themselves of such household servants, as might not only serve at other times for the common offices of life, but might also be of advantage to them in their wars. And, indeed, if anyone does but attend to the other parts of their military discipline, he will be forced to confess, that their obtaining so large a dominion hath been the acquisition of their valour, and not the bare gift of fortune; for they do not begin to use their weapons first in time of war, nor do they then put their hands first into motion, having been idle in times of peace; but, as if their weapons were part of themselves, they have never any truce from warlike exercises; nor do they stay till times of war admonish them to use them; for their military exercises by no means fall short of the tension of real warfare, but every soldier is every day exercised, and that with real diligence, as if it were in time of war, which is the reason why they bear the fatigue of battles so easily; for neither can any disorder remove them from their usual regularity, nor can fear affright them out of it, nor can labour tire them; which firmness of conduct makes them always to overcome those that have not the same firmness; nor would he be mistaken that would call those their exercises unbloody battles, and their battles bloody exercises. Nor can their enemies easily surprise them with sudden incursion; for as soon as they have marched into an enemy's land, they do not begin to fight till they have walled their camp about; nor is the fence they raise rashly made, or uneven; nor do they all abide in it, nor do those that are in it take their places at random; but if it happens that the ground is uneven, it is first levelled; their camp is also foursquare by measure, and carpenters are ready, in great numbers, with their tools, to erect their buildings for them.
As for what is within the camp, it is set apart for tents, but the outward circumference hath the resemblance to a wall, and is adorned with towers at equal distances; where between the towers stand the engines for throwing arrows, and darts, and for slinging stones, and where they lay all other engines that can annoy the enemy, all ready for their several operations. They also erect four gates, one at every side of the circumference, and those large enough, for the entrance of the beasts, and wide enough for making excursions, if occasion should require. They divide the camp within into streets, very conveniently, and place the tents of the commanders in the middle, but in the very midst of all is the general's own tent, in the nature of a temple, insomuch that it appears to be a city built on the sudden; with its market place, and place for handicraft trades, and with seats for the officers superior and inferior, where, if any differences arise, their causes are heard and determined. The camp, and all that is in it, are constructed sooner than one would imagine, and this by the multitude and the skill of the labourers; and, if occasion require, a trench is drawn round the whole, whose depth is four cubits, and its breadth equal.
When they have thus secured themselves, they live together by companies, with quietness and decency, as are all their other affairs managed with good order and security. Each company hath also their wood, and their corn, and their water brought them, when they stand in need of them; for they neither sup nor dine as they please themselves singly, but all together. Their times also for sleeping, and watching, and rising, are notified beforehand by the sound of trumpets, nor is anything done without such a signal; and in the morning the soldiery go everyone to their centurions, and these centurions to their tribunes, to salute them; with whom all the superior officers go to the general of the whole army; who then gives them the usual watchword and other orders, to be by them carried to all that are under their command; which is also observed when they go to fight, and thereby they turn themselves about on the sudden when there is occasion for making sallies, as they come back when they are recalled in crowds also.
Now when they are to go out of their camp, the trumpet gives a sound, at which time nobody lies still, but at the first intimation they take down their tents, and all is made ready for their going out; then do the trumpets sound again, to order them to get ready for the march; then do they lay their baggage suddenly upon their mules, and other beasts of burthen, and stand, as at the place of starting, ready to march; when also they set fire to their camp, and this they do because it will be easy for them to erect another camp, and that it may not ever be of use to their enemies. Then do the trumpets give a sound the third time, that they are to go out, in order to excite those that on any account are tardy, that so no one may be out of his rank when the army marches. Then does the crier stand at the general's right hand, and asks them thrice in their own tongue, whether they be now ready to go out to war or not? To which they reply as often, with a loud and cheerful voice, saying, 'We are ready'. And this they do almost before the question is asked them: they do this as filled with a kind of martial fury, and at the same time that they cry out, they lift up their right hands also.
When, after this, they are gone out of their camp, they all march with-out noise, and in a decent manner, and every one keeps his own rank, as if they were going to war. The footmen are armed with breast-plates, and head-pieces, and have swords on each side, but the sword which is upon their left side is much longer than the other, for that on the right side is not longer than a span. Those footmen also that are chosen out from the rest to be about the general himself, have a lance and a buckler, but the rest of the foot-soldiers have a spear, and a long shield, besides a saw and a basket, a spade, and an axe, a thong of leather, and a hook, with provisions for three days, so that a foot-soldier carrieth nearly as great a burden as a mule. The horsemen have a long sword on their right sides and a long pole in their hand; a shield also lies by them obliquely on one side of their horses with three or more darts that are borne in their quiver, having broad points, and not smaller than spears. They have also head-pieces, and breast-plates, in like manner as have all the footmen. And for those that are chosen to be about the general, their armour no way differs from that of the horsemen belonging to other troops; and that legion leads to which the lot assigns that place.
This is the manner of the marching and resting of the Romans, as also these are the several sorts of weapons they use. But when they are to fight, they leave nothing without forecast, nor to be done offhand, but counsel is ever first taken before any work is begun, and what hath been there resolved upon is put in execution presently; for which reason they seldom commit any errors, and if they have been mistaken at any time, they easily correct those mistakes. They also esteem any errors they commit upon taking counsel beforehand, to be better than such rash success as is owing to fortune only; because such a fortuitious advantage tempts men to be inconsiderate, while consultation, though it may sometimes fail of success, hath this good in it, that it makes men more careful hereafter; but for the advantages that arise from chance, they are not owing to him that gains them; and as to what melancholy accidents happen unexpectedly, there is this comfort in them, that they had however taken the best consultations they could to prevent them.
Now they so manage their preparatory exercises of their weapons, that not the bodies of the soldiers only, but their souls may also become stronger: they are moreover hardened for war by fear, for their laws inflict capital punishments, not only for desertion, but for slothfulness, though it be but in a lesser degree; as are their generals more severe than their laws, for they prevent any imputation of cruelty toward those whom they punish, by the great rewards they bestow on the valiant; and the readiness of obeying their commanders is so great, that it is very ornamental in peace; but when they come to a battle, the whole army is but one body, so orderly are their ranks, so facile are their turnings about, so sharp their hearing, as to what orders are given them, so quick their sight of the signals, and so nimble are their hands when they set to work; whereby it comes to pass, that what they do is done quickly, and what they suffer they bear with the greatest patience. Nor can we find any examples where they have been conquered in battle, when they came to a close fight, either by the multitude of the enemies, or by their stratagems, or by the difficulties in the places they were in, no, nor by fortune neither, for their victories have been surer to them than fortune could have granted them. In a case, therefore, where counsel still goes before action, and where the result of deliberation is followed by so active an army, what wonder is it that Euphrates on the east, the ocean on the west, the most fertile regions of Libya on the south, and the Danube and the Rhine on the north, are the limits of this empire? One might well say, that the Roman possessions are inferior to the Romans themselves.
This account I have given the reader, not so much with the intention of commending the Romans, as of comforting those that have been conquered by them, and for the deterring others from attempting innovations under their government. This discourse of the Roman military conduct may also perhaps be of use to such of the curious as are ignorant of it, and yet have a mind to know it. I return now from this digression.