The Roman Legion went through three main phases or transformations. Each phase, not coincidentally, coincides with the three phases of the government and society. Now, in all three phases the Roman army kicked serious barbarian butt and took some Gaelic names in the process. Each phase was adapted to fight the enemies at its time and came from years of battles and experience. With each enemy conquered, the Romans took the best and most effective parts and adapted them to their own military. For example, the famous Roman sword, the short “Gladius” was from the native Spanish and their helmets came from the barbarians living in France. Now, the Roman legion, regardless of time, was the very model of kickbuttery. They were made of iron, swords and foul words. In fact, they were so lethally efficient at what they did, that our modern western armies are still modeled after them 2,000 later. Yes, they had drill sergeants back then, proof of my theory that drill sergeants are immortal, evil demons sent to torment mankind.
The first phase of the Roman legion is the legion of the Roman Republic. The system they used was called “Maniples” or “Manipular Legions.” At this time, the Romans were still very much influenced by the Greeks and had traces of the old classic phalanx type formations. They were also, a bit…um…not recognizable as the legions we’ve come to know and love.
The legions were made up of professional volunteer soldiers drawn up from the citizenry. Sound familiar? This was a break away from the Greek tradition of farmers going off on campaign and then returning to the fields once the campaigning season was over. (like sports, they had seasons.)
The legions of the Republic were an adaptive and varied bunch. There were lightly armed skirmishers that would harass the enemy and draw them into combat and protect weak flanks. There were the heavy infantry with large shields and short swords. (we’ll see more of them later) There were also phalanxes and javelin throwing guys. Their cavalry at this time actually kinda sucked. The Romans never were a horsey type of folk. So, they recruited horsemen from allied (aka. conquered) barbarian tribes. This was before the invention of the stirrup so they couldn’t be too heavily armed or armored.
There is a mystery however: How exactly did they fight? They fought in square units in a checkerboard formation with large empty spaces between them. Anyone that’s seen Braveheart or any other “historical” movie know that armies fight in a long continuous line. But, why did they do this? Why leave large gaps? The answer is…we don’t know. Did the squares shift positions? Fall back and move forward? Form a continuous line right before contact with the enemy? It’ll remain a mystery but we know one thing, we know it worked. It worked because they took down the baddest boys on their block, the Carthaginians. They had a cold war going on for control of the Mediterranean. The Romans then said that Carthage was hiding weapons of mass destruction and started a war. Hannibal rampaged around Italy like a hyperactive monkey with epilepsy. But then the Romans said “Fine, whatever, do your thing in Italy, I’ll just mess up your pad while you’re gone.” And they went right to Carthage and took it like the rent was due. So, odd checkerboard pattern and funny hats or not, they owned their enemies like a 12 year old Japanese boy playing Halo.
Second incarnation of the Legion
Now we’ve come to the fully realized, Imperial Legions that we see in film.
By this time, the Republic form of government was a mere sham. It was now an Empire with all the tyranny, power and snappy uniforms that entails. The Empire had government factories making arms and armor which gave their troops better, cheaper and more uniform equipment that wouldn’t be seen again until the age of Napoleon. (Though, never again with such awesome looking armor)
The Romans’ armor, called “Lorica Segmentata” was a compromise between protection and maneuverability. The legion had to be able to get where it needed to during a battle. They carried large, rectangular shields that could be held in a tight pattern to form protective walls from wince they would stab their enemies. These were highly disciplined and trained killers. They stayed in the legion for many years, couldn’t marry and devoted their lives to the legion. They had a particularly lethal form of fighting that was simple but ingeniously effective. Each soldier carried short throwing spears and just before the made contact with the enemy, they would let loose with these “Pilum” that would devastate the front ranks of the enemy, causing confusion and panic right before the Romans plowed into them. That’s not all: as the Romans began shanking the enemy, the rear ranks would continue to throw their pilum into the enemy, causing constant casualties. “But, why such short swords?” you ask. Well, they didn’t need to compensate. Also, when they’re shield to shield like that, they don’t have a lot of space to be swinging around a long sword. So they had short stabby swords.
These legions were large, well organized and spread out over all the empire.
The third incarnation of the legions is perhaps a little less recognizable and I have yet to see a good example shown on film. This form of the legion is a bit more “medieval” then the other two, which, again, reflected the government and society of the time. As the Empire died, the middle ages grew. Large land owners became practically autonomous and ruled their towns like feudal lords. Also, Rome was now under constant threat from barbarian invasions. This was unfortunate because Rome was broke and their stimulus bills were working as well our our stimulus bills today…which is to say, not at all. So, to save cost, the centralized arms factories were shut down and the legions, (now localized) were told to get whatever equipment was available locally. Chainmail was the easiest and cheapest to make by untrained peasants, to the legions lost their cool, plate-mail “Lorica segmentata” and got chainmail shirts that went to their elbows and thighs. This wasn’t nearly as effective, but it was better than nothing. Also, their shields grew smaller and round while their swords grew longer, thus hampering their usage of the traditional close quarters formations. Spearmen grew more common as did cavalry. The Romans started realizing the advantages of heavy cavalry because their enemies kept using it against them.
Their organization was a bit different as well. The titanic legions were broken up into smaller, spread out units because, well… they kept rebelling and causing civil wars. There were two types of legions as well. First, there were the stationary boarder legions. These guys occupied small forts along the boarder and watched out for trouble. They were kind of like our National Guard in America or the Territorial Army in England. Less trained, less equipped, less motivated. If a barbarian horde came along, they were to slow them down long enough for the full time better trained legion to show up. The regular legions were stationed in the central parts of the empire so they could move out and meet the oncoming threat from whichever direction it came from. It was efficient and somewhat effective. It was a necessary adaptation to the changing threats. Unfortunately, this was also perhaps the least effective type of legion. During the climactic battle with Attila the Hun, the Romans relied more on their barbarian allies to do the fighting for them. This worked out for a while but eventually came to bite them in the rear when the barbarians who made up the army came to control the army and then began to control the politics as well. By the end the Emperors were puppets of the barbarian warlords until Theodoric, the barbarian general decided to cut out the middle-man and rule the empire himself. The Romans began to rely so heavily on Barbarians because they had recruitment issues, mainly an idiot emperor decided it would be a good time to prevent citizens from serving in the legions. Good job bud. The Eastern Roman Empire got rid of their barbarians and guess what? They lasted another 1,000 years. Go figure. Lesson learned: don’t outsource your military.