The last great-integrated army of antiquity was that of Rome.
Civilization spread to the western Mediterranean after the end of the ancient
Dark Age, carried there by traders from Phoenicia and Greece. By the third
century BC, Carthage and Rome were at war for dominance of the western
Mediterranean. The Punic Wars between these two powers were on and off for over
one hundred years, ending with the destruction of Carthage and enslavement of
her people. Roman expansion continued after the fall of Carthage and eventually
the Roman Empire encompassed Alexander’s conquests, minus the Indus Valley,
plus most of Britain, southern Europe to the borders of the Rhine and Danube
Rivers, and North Africa. The empire was acquired and defended by the
self-sufficient legions of the Roman Army.
The Romans adopted the phalanx formation for their infantry around 550 BC, but
this proved impractical in the hilly terrain of Italy. They evolved a heavy
infantry system of smaller 120-man units called maniples —literally a handful.
The maniples could be employed in column-like a phalanxes or in lines. The
maniples were the basic building blocks of a legion. The number of legions in
service started at four and grew as the Empire expanded. A legion was a largely
self-sufficient fighting force of light troops, heavy infantry, and cavalry.
A legion of second century BC consisted of 4200 men drafted from the citizenry
of the Republic. All non-slaves reported for possible induction. The 1200
youngest and poorest recruits were assigned as light troops called velites.
These men carried swords, javelins, and a small round shield, but no armor. The
1200 that were next in terms of age and property became hastati, the first line
of heavy infantry, followed by the next 1200 called the principes in the second
line. The hastati and principes carried an oval shield, a Spanish short sword
(gladius), and two pila (throwing spears). The oldest 600 men formed the third
line and were called the triari. They carried a thrusting spear instead of the
pilum. All foot soldiers in the legion usually wore a bronze breastplate,
helmet, and greaves.
The richest men in the draft usually ended up in the legion’s cavalry
contingent of 300 or so men. These were divided into 10 groups of 30. Roman
cavalry of the second century carried a round shield and long spear.
The legion in battle
A legion probably advanced in three lines behind a screen formed by the velites.
The first line was the 10 maniples of hastati. A gap was left between the
maniples equal to the width of their frontage. The principes formed the second
line, with their 10 maniples probably arranged behind the gaps in the first
line. The triari formed the third line. Cavalry was deployed to the sides to
keep other cavalry and light troops from the flanks.
As the moment of infantry shock approached, the velites loosed a hail of
javelins against the enemy and then retired through the gaps in the lines behind
them. Once the velites had passed, the rear ranks of the hastati maniples moved
into the gap between the maniple on the left, forming a continuous line. Just
before impact with the enemy, the hastati threw their pila. When the hastati
threw their pila, they were acting as their own missile troops. These throwing
spears were designed to bend, not break off, if they penetrated an enemy shield.
This greatly weighed down the enemy’s shield, making it almost useless. The
hastati then followed up their pila attack by closing for hand-to-hand fighting
with their short swords, which were designed for cutting and thrusting.
The heavy infantry of the Roman legion was the decisive arm of their army. They
were superbly trained and vigorously disciplined, making them very tough