The Roman Legions and their Officers

Geoffrey Powell offers a study of everyday Imperial military life.

Since the re-discovery of the classical writers in the Renaissance, the Roman legion has been admired as the epitome of an efficient fighting machine. Writers such as Julius Caesar, Josephus the Jew and Vegetius have described methods of training and administration and a system of battlefield drills of an excellence that the Western world was not to see again until Cromwell forged his New Model Army. The legion, in fact, was the first truly professional fighting formation.

The strength of a legion was about six thousand men—all volunteers and citizens of Rome. The smallest sub-unit was the contubernium, or tent-party, of eight men and ten of these tent-parties made up the basic company or centuria which was the centurion’s command. Six; centuries formed a cohort, the first and most senior of which was double the size of the others, holding on its strength the many specialists such as clerks, tradesmen and orderlies, who made up what we would now call the ‘tail’ of the formation. Included also was an integral squadron of one hundred and twenty mounted men who acted as orderlies and despatch riders.

Heavily armoured and equipped with a short stabbing sword and two slender and well-balanced javelins, or pila, the legionaries—known vulgarly as caligatae, the booted ones—advanced on the battlefield shoulder to shoulder with their long semi-cylindrical shields held in a solid wall in front of them. When about thirty yards away from the enemy, the caligatae threw their javelins and surged in, thrusting their short swords into the bellies of their opponents with an under-arm action.

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