Making It Happen: The Military of Ancient Rome – Part II

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

If this is your initial visit with us, thanks for stopping by. If you are back for further adventures with us, then you’re in for a treat.

For those not aware, the growth of Ancient Rome was put onto the backs of its soldiers. Last week we pulled on our caligae (military boots) and grabbed our gladiī (swords) as we joined the Exercitus Romanus (Roman Army) in Making It Happen: The Military of Ancient Rome – Part I.

Today we are journeying back to when, and where, it all went down as we continue with how the Military of Ancient Rome made it all happen!

Reenacters portraying the Roman Legionaries of Legio XV Apollinaris.

The Roman Military was keen on the doctrine of power projection. It frequently removed foreign rulers by force or intimidation and replaced them with puppets.

This was facilitated by the maintenance, for at least part of its history, of a series of client states and other subjugate and buffer entities beyond its official borders, although over which Rome extended massive political and military control. On the other hand, this also could mean the payment of immense subsidies to foreign powers and opened the possibility of extortion in case military means were insufficient.

Showing the vast amount of land held by the Roman Empire (c. 125 AD).

The Empire’s system of building an extensive and well-maintained network of Viae (Roman Roads), as well as its absolute command of the Mediterranean for much of its history, enabled a primitive form of rapid reaction, also stressed in modern military doctrine. Since there was no real strategic reserve, this often entailed the raising of fresh troops or the withdrawing of troops from other parts of the border.

The Roman Military had an extensive logistical supply chain. There was no specialized branch devoted to logistics and transportation, although this was to a great extent carried out by the Roman Navy due to the ease and low costs of transporting goods via sea and river compared to over land. There is archaeological evidence that Roman Armies campaigning in Germania were supplied by a logistical supply chain beginning in Italy and Gaul, then transported by sea to the northern coast of Germania, and finally penetrating into Germania via barges on inland waterways.

Forces were routinely supplied via fixed supply chains, and although Roman Armies in enemy territory would often supplement or replace this by foraging for food or purchasing food locally, this was often insufficient for their needs. For instance, a single Legio (Legion) would have required 13.5 tons of food per month, which would have proved impossible to source locally.

For the most part, Roman cities had a Civil Guard used for maintaining the peace. Due to fear of rebellions and other uprisings, the guards were forbidden to be armed at militia levels.

Roman Cavalry from a mosaic of the Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily (4th Century AD).

Policing was split between the Civil Guard for low-level affairs and the Roman Legions and Auxilia for quelling higher-level rioting and rebellion. This Civil Guard created a limited strategic reserve, but fared poorly in actual warfare.

Literacy was highly valued in the Roman Military, thus literacy rates in the military far exceeded that of the Roman society as a whole. Being able to read, led to creativity, which made the military engineering of Ancient Rome‘s armed forces was of a scale and frequency far beyond that of any of its contemporaries.

Indeed, military engineering was in many ways institutionally widespread in Roman military culture, as demonstrated by the fact that each Legionarius (Legionary) had as part of his equipment a shovel, alongside his gladius and pila (spears).

This engineering prowess was, however, only evident during the peak of Roman military prowess from the mid-Republic to the mid-Empire. Prior to the mid-Republic period there is little evidence of protracted or exceptional military engineering, and in the late Empire likewise there is little sign of the kind of engineering feats that were regularly carried out in the earlier Empire.

Roman military engineering took both routine and extraordinary forms, the former a proactive part of standard military procedure, and the latter of an extraordinary or reactionary nature. To make this happen, soldiers learned to build, and build quickly, as a standard element of training.

The massive earthen ramp at Masada, designed by the Roman army to breach the fortress’ walls.

Proactive military engineering took the form of the regular construction of Castra (Fortified Camps), in road-building, and in the construction of siege engines. The knowledge and experience learned through such routine engineering lent itself readily to any extraordinary engineering projects required by the Army, such as the circumvallations constructed at Alesia and the earthen ramp constructed at Masada.

This engineering expertise practiced in daily routines also served in the construction of siege equipment such as ballistaeonagers and siege towers, as well as allowing the troops to construct roads, bridges and fortified camps. All of these led to strategic capabilities, allowing Roman troops to, respectively, assault besieged settlements, move more rapidly to wherever they were needed, cross rivers to reduce march times and surprise enemies, and to camp in relative security even in enemy territory.

Rome was established as a nation by making aggressive use of its high military potential. From very early on in its history, Rome would raise 2 forces annually to campaign abroad.

The Roman Military was far from being solely a defense force. For much of its history, it was a tool of aggressive expansion.

The evolution of the Roman Legionary.

The Roman Army had derived from a militia of mainly farmers, and the gain of new farm lands for the growing population or later retiring soldiers was often a chief objective for a campaign. Only in the late Empire did the preservation of control over Rome’s territories become the Roman Military’s primary role.

The remaining major powers confronting Rome were the Kingdom of AksumParthia and the Hunnic Empire. Knowledge of China, the Han Dynasty at the times of Mani, existed and it is believed that Rome and China swapped embassies about 170 AD.

In its purest form, the concept of strategy deals solely with military issues. Up to half of the funds raised by the Roman State were spent on its Military, and the Romans displayed a strategy that was clearly more complicated than simple knee-jerk strategic or tactical responses to individual threats.

Roman soldiers battling barbarian troops on the Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus (250-260).

Rome’s strategy changed over time, implementing different systems to meet different challenges that reflected changing internal priorities. Elements of Rome’s strategy included the use of client states, the deterrent of armed response in parallel with manipulative diplomacy, and a fixed system of troop deployments and road networks.

When in doubt, Rome would rely on brute force and sheer numbers. Soldiers were trained to memorize every step in battle, so discipline and order could not break down into chaos, thus leading to lots of successful Roman outcomes.

Although Roman iron-working was enhanced by a process known as carburization, the Romans were not thought to have developed true steel production. From the earliest history of the Roman State to its downfall, Roman arms were uniformly produced from either bronze or iron.

As a result, the 1300 years of Roman military technology saw little radical change in technological level. Within the bounds of classical military technology, however, Roman arms & armor was developed, discarded, and adopted from other peoples based on changing methods of engagement.

Typical weapons carried by the Legions of Rome.

It included at various times stabbing daggers and swords, stabbing or thrusting swords, long thrusting spears or pikes, lances, light throwing javelins and darts, slings, and bow and arrows. Roman military personal equipment was produced in large numbers to established patterns and used in an established way, so it varied little in design and quality within each historical period.

Roman arms & armor gave them an advantage over their barbarian enemies who were often, as Germanic tribesmen, completely unarmored. However, whilst the uniform possession of armor gave Rome an advantage, the actual standard of each item of Roman equipment was of no better quality than that used by the majority of its enemies.

The relatively low quality of Roman weaponry was primarily a function of its large-scale production. Later factors, such as governmental price fixing for certain items, gave no allowance for quality and incentivized cheap, poor-quality goods.

The Roman Military readily adopted types of arms and armor that were effectively used against them by their enemies. Initially Roman troops were armed after Greek and Etruscan models, using large oval shields and long pikes.

On encountering the Celts they adopted much Celtic equipment and again later adopted items such as the gladius from Iberian peoples. Later in Rome’s history, it adopted practices such as arming its Cavalry with bows in the Parthian style, and even experimented briefly with niche weaponry such as elephants and camel-troops.

Bas relief of a Roman Ballista Roman on Trajan’s Column.

Besides personal weaponry, the Roman Military adopted team weaponry. Items such as the Ballista and the naval corvus, a spiked plank used for affixing and boarding enemy ships, used multiple troops to achieve a singular goal.

The expansion of the Roman Empire was achieved through military force in nearly every case. Roman culture as a whole revolved around its Military for both expansion and protection.

Geographic areas on the outskirts of the Empire were prone to attack and required heavy military presence. The constant barrage of attacks and the increase of expansion caused several casualties.

Augustus Caesar

Due to attack there was a need for specialized medical care for these soldiers, in order to keep them in operational status. The specialized form of care, however, was not created until the time of Augustus (31BC-14AD).

Prior to this there is little information about the care of soldiers. It is assumed soldiers were self-reliant, treating their own wounds and caring for other ailments encountered.

They would also turn to civilians for help throughout the villages they would come across. This was considered a custom of the time, and was quite common for households to take in wounded soldiers and tend to them.

As time progressed, there was an increase in care for the wounded as hospitals appeared. The idea was held by the Romans that a healed soldier was better than a dead one and a healed veteran was better than a new recruit.

With the need for soldier health a growing concern, places for the sick to go in the Army were starting to show up. Dates ranged from AD 9 to AD 50, but this is when initial evidence of hospitals was seen in archaeological remains.

General set up of Ancient Roman Military Hospital at Novaesium (near Dusseldorft, Germany).

These hospitals were specific places for only military members to go to if they were injured or fell ill, a similar situation was used for slaves. Military hospitals were permanent structures set up in forts, with clear patient rooms designed to accommodate a large numbers of soldiers.

The size of these hospitals varied based on their location. Some of the large facilities, such as the hospital in Hod Hill England, could accommodate roughly 12% of the force within the hospital.

In more stable areas such as Inchtuthil in Scotland, there was room for as little as 2% of the force within the hospital. Areas with more conflict obviously had larger medical facilities as they saw more casualties.

These hospitals were solely designed for the use of the military. If a civilian fell ill or needed surgery they would likely go to the physician’s home and stay, not a hospital.

Establishing field hospitals during battle.

Prior to these permanent structures there were tents set up as mobile field hospitals. Soldiers suffering from severe wounds were brought to a field hospital for treatment, as the structures were assembled and disassembled as the Army moved.

Doctors serving in the Army were considered to be a member of the Roman Military. Just like everyone else, Army Physicians would take the military oath and be bound by the military law.

They would also start among the lower fighting ranks. Even though they took the military oath and were among the lower ranks, it did not mean they would be fighting among the masses.

These doctors were not always professionals or career physicians. Oftentimes they were slaves who were forced into that career.

The Medici was also a group that treated wounded soldiers on the battlefield. These men were not trained physicians even though they played the role of one.

Roman surgical instruments found at Pompeii (Museo di_Napoli).

Typically they were soldiers who demonstrated they had knowledge in wound treatment and even simple surgical techniques. These men were used before the actual trained doctors were largely implemented.

Physicians got their knowledge from experience and information being passed down from person to person. Likely Physicians never used medical texts, as it was not common place even in the civilian field to do so.

Generals and Emperors were exceptions, as they would typically have their own personal physician with them. This was a common occurrence as Emperors such as Julian employed famous physicians such as Galen.

By the time of Trajan (53AD-117AD), the Medical Corps was well on the way to being an organized machine. At this time, Physicians were attached to nearly every Army and Navy Unit in all the Roman Military.

Mural of a Roman soldier removing an arrow from a fellow soldier’s leg with a pair of pinchers.

By this time the Army was massive, consisting of 25 to 30 Legions, each of which contained nearly 6,000 men. Each Legio included both soldiers and physicians.

At this point all physicians were either self-taught or learned their trade through an apprenticeship. Despite this, there was an attempt at organization, as the Army did have a medical manual that was passed out to its Physicians.

The Medici were used on both the front line as emergency care providers and in the rear as the main physicians. The Capsarii were mainly used as the front line care providers and bandagers, but also assisted the Medici behind the lines.

Romans received their medical knowledge largely from the Greeks that came before them. As Rome started to expand, it slowly embraced the Greek culture, causing an influx of medicinal information in Roman society.

This influx of medicinal information allowed knowledge to become the foundation of all western medical tradition. The Greek theories were kept alive and their practices continued well into the future.

Showing where various Roman Legions were stationed (212 AD).

This knowledge was also the foundation used in the military medicine since it contained the overarching ideas of their medical knowledge. As time progressed these medical texts would be translated into Arabic and then back into Latin as the flow of information changed.

We can presume that some of the information in these texts has been lost in translation. Despite this, we are still able to illustrate a clear picture of what military medicine was like during the reign of the Roman Empire.

As is the case with any large number of people being in close quarters, there was a constant threat of disease. When one individual in a large group gets sick with a communicable disease, it spreads to others very quickly.

This premise remains true even today in the modern military. The Romans recognized the difference between disease and wounds, each requiring separate treatment.

Drainage of excess water and waste were common practices in camps as well as the later, permanent medical structures. As the medical corps grew in size there was also specialization evolving.

Physicians surfaced that specialized in disease, surgery, wound dressing and even veterinary medicine. Veterinary physicians were there to tend to livestock for agricultural purposes as well as combat purposes.

Parade of Ancient Roman Cavalry on the column of Antoninus Pius (Rome, Italy).

The Cavalry was known for their use of horses in combat and scouting purposes. Because of the type of injuries that would have been commonly seen, surgery was a somewhat common occurrence.

Tools such as scissors, knives and arrow extractors have been found in remains of both human and animal alike. In fact, Roman surgery was quite intuitive, in contrast to common thought of ancient surgery.

The Roman Military Surgeons used a cocktail of plants, which created a sedative similar to modern anesthesia. Written documentation also showed Surgeons would use oxidation from metal such as copper and scrape it into wounds, which provided an antibacterial.

Doctors had the knowledge to clean their surgical instruments with hot water after each use. Wounds were dressed, and dead tissue was removed when bandages were changed.

Honey and cobwebs were items used to cover wounds, and have even been shown today to increase healing. Most major advancements in knowledge and technique came from military medicine rather than civil practice.

Roman Soldier marching pack

Diet was an issue that is often discussed as an aspect of medical care. Since our idea of modern technology did not exist, diet was a simple way for Romans to attain a healthy life.

This was true in the Roman Military as the soldiers required appropriate nutrition in order to function at high activity levels. There were often unique circumstances in attempting the acquisition of food for everyone.

During a campaign the soldiers would often forage food from their enemies land. In fact as part of the standard kit, Roman soldiers would carry a sickle, which would be used to forage food.

They would carry a 3-day ration of food in case they were in a situation where foraging was not available. A typical Roman Army diet consisted of items such as wheat, barley, bacon, cheese, vegetables, and sour wine to drink.

The soldier was given a ration, which was taken from his pay, and were well fed in times of peace. If the soldiers were well fed, they were healthier and able to maintain a high level of physical activity, as well as stave off disease.

Roman Soldiers on the offensive end of a siege.

Disease is still something that is easier to prevent rather than treat. This idea holds true in the event a fort was under siege, where certain food items were rationed.

Poultry was a rationed item since it was very inexpensive to maintain and, in the event of a siege, it did not require a lot of resources to maintain. It was also noted that poultry had benefits for those who were sick.

This demonstrates the idea was present that the Army needed to maintain the health of its members regardless of happenings. These discoveries were made while looking at the remains of Roman Military sites.

From the excavation of Trimontium Fort.

By excavating these sites and looking at fecal matter found, scientists were able to determine what was eaten. The variety of food found shows the Romans were not focused on just caloric intake, as they knew a variety of food was important to health and their combat readiness.

We appreciate you stopping by today. Hopefully you enjoyed today’s adventure and will come back again soon.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



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