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Rome: The Baddest SOBs in Antiquity


“Before all else, be armed.” The words of Machiavelli resound the might and clout of Rome during the age of its imperial peak. The empire of Rome dominated most of the civilized world at its zenith. Its borders spanned Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa, swallowing and dwarfing the former Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great. The astonishing might and rapid expansion of the Roman Empire came from the genius of its leaders. The Caesars of Rome understood that to control the entire world, as they saw it, one must have three things: shrewd politics, military weapons technology, and precision battle tactics.

From scattered tribes of barbarians, the Romans rose. Legend says that twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, were born of a mortal woman, Rhea Silvia, and the god of war, Mars. Fearing that the lads would rise to the throne, King Amulius ordered them drowned. The twins were rescued by a she-wolf and raised in the forest until they came of age.

On April 21st, 753 BC, both brothers founded a city, Rome. But lust for power, accompanied by a thirst for violence, overtook Romulus: he murdered Remus in a fight for the throne. Rome thrived, growing over the next century and a half until the republic was established at around 509 BC.

A written constitution became one of the most significant factors in the rise of the Roman Empire. For the first time, power was balanced between different factions the magistrates, the senate, and the plebs (common people)with checks and balances in place between each branch of the government.

With a solid constitution, with the hearts of the people committed to Rome, the next natural step became escalated expansion. To accomplish this, Rome employed at first its bourgeois, then its farmers and citizens as soldiers. They were equipped with the most advanced gear of the era and commanded by brilliant generals who were versed in state-of-the-art war tactics.

Rome spared no expense when it came to equipping its army. From personal weapons and body armor to the most advanced siege machines most designs for these machines were lost during the middle ages no barbarian army could stand against the Roman infantry.

When it came to equipping the infantry, Rome traded raw brute force for finesse. Where most barbarian fighters used heavy, lengthy weapons that could deal devastating blows all at once, The Roman soldier carried a short, stabbing sword called a Gladiaus Hispaniensis. With shorter weapons, Roman infantry were able to move within the effective range of enemy weapons and inflict many quick devastating blows with calculated strokes.

Roman armor called lorica seqmentata-consisted of body armor made up of segmented bands held together with hooks. Such armor covered the torso and shoulders. Infantrymen also carried large shields made from two curved pieces of wood covered by leather hide. The shields, weighing 10 kg, acted as weapons in and of themselves. Soldiers were trained to hold their shields in front of them and rush the enemy, bashing them to the ground before finishing them with short swords. Soldiers also planted their shields and fought from behind them.

Apart from personal weapons, the Roman army employed an arsenal of the most advanced siege equipment of the time. A siege, to the Roman army, didn’t mean blockading a fortress and waiting to starve out the enemy. Rather, they fought ferociously with large siege engines, such as the oneger, a catapult device that tossed large boulders into the bunker walls of enemy strongholds.

The scorpion was another siege machine. This device functioned much like an oversized crossbow. It’s ammunition: large javelins, launched with astonishing accuracy, able to pierce the hearts of soldiers along the parapets of enemy strongholds.

Along with brilliant artillery weapons, the siege tower was also used. These hulking structures, festooned with Roman soldiers, could roll up to the walls of enemy fortresses. Roman archers could shot from perches behind leather and wooden shells that fronted these towers. Once in range, drawbridges could be dropped to allow droves of soldiers to swarm the walls and fight like lions.

The advances in Roman weaponry yielded many benefits; not only could Roman armies dominate technologically in the battlefield, their weapons struck fear into enemy forces. When the Romans came, enemies knew that it would be a bloody and, most likely, losing battle against them.

But even the most advance weapons can’t win a war without effective battle tactics.

Roman generals knew that the first key to success on the battlefield came from an organized army. Hence, the army was divided and subdivided into manageable units with capable commanders at each level. The total Roman army consisted of 30 legions of 5,500 men per legion. Legions were divided into ten cohorts, nine cohorts with 480 soldiers each, leaving 1180 men for the last cohort. Cohorts were segmented into centuries, containing about 80 men each. A centurion commanded each century.

Legions contained soldiers with different specialties, including cavalry, archers, infantry, etc. The first cohort contained other men who specialized in non-combatant skills such as shepherds, farmers, blacksmiths, cooks, etc.

Leaders of Roman armies understood the value of soldiers. They did all they could to keep soldiers out of pitched battles and to fight the enemy indirectly. Getting enough grain to feed an army posed a huge problem both on the side of Rome and for its enemies. The Roman army waged battle by cutting off the supplies of food and water to enemy armies. If this could be done, enemy troops would be weakened and demoralized. Only at that point would Roman garrisons close in for the kill.

Supplies to enemy armies were cut off using various means. Rome would dispatch cohorts to attack enemy supply depots like farms, granaries, and storage facilities. Romans would take everything they could. By doing so, they not only depleted enemy supplies, they built up a stock of food and water for their own soldiers.

Scouts would be deployed to find supply lines to enemy armies. Rome would attack these supply lines to cut off the necessary goods enemy armies needed to fight. By doing so, Rome could defeat enemies before even meeting them on the field of battle.

The siege was a third military tactic Romans used. During a siege, Roman armies could withdraw from the gates of enemy strongholds, out of the reach of weapons, to build siege equipment. During a siege, time was on the Roman’s side. They attacked only when they were ready with siege machines that could pick off enemy soldiers from long distances. They could catapult fire, stone, or decomposing bodies riddled with the plague into enemy strongholds without putting their valuable soldiers in harm’s way.

Romans only fought pitched battles when necessary, but when they did, they attempted to bend battlefield conditions to their favor. They would set up blockades to foil enemy cavalry and chariots. They fought in tight phalanxes, which gave them the power to penetrate and outflank enemy divisions. They used scouts extensively to study enemy movements and to gain the high ground before battles were even fought.

Machiavelli, an Italian politician and writer who lived centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, understood the principles of power. He wrote in his magnum opus, The Prince, “before all else, be armed.” This could have very well been the credo of the ancient Roman army. But they might have augmented his statement to something like this: above all else, be armed, be politically astute, be technologically acute.

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