Roman Generalship

by Daniel Russ on October 15, 2010

Roman Legion

It was Marius who formalized the structure of the Roman army, or as my friend Matt McDougal says, “He consul proofed it.” He certainly did. No ancient army was as effective or as tenacious or as brutally efficient as the Roman Army. The victories celebrated by Roman consuls after the first century BC should be shared with the Centurions, or the professional officer corps that Marius essentially put in charge of the Legions. The Roman Senate elected two men per year or per military campaign to share command of the troops. In some famous battles in Roman history the consuls switched off command every other day. Marius had to fix this problem. The problem itself was born of the fear that if one man commanded an army by himself, he might wake up one day and realize that if he decided to take power, no one else could stop him unless that other person had command if his own legions. It must also have been born of the notion that political power was so intoxicating, every man in charge had to have another force there to put his willpower in check. Ancient Rome was probably the single most politically charged environment in the world.

Julius Caesar

Movies and accounts of warfare in the Classical era often emphasizes the death, the horror of close quarters combat, pools of blood over a battlefield, the suffering, the moans and screams of wounded men in an era of almost zero battlefield medicine. But historians have also uncovered good evidence that Roman legions were organized with a physician and four attending nurses in each cohort. Forward field hospitals were deployed before major battles. John Peddie recalls that the wife of Germanicus, Agrippina had organized medical relief of Roman warriors in field hospitals where she ” dispensed clothes to the needy and dressed the wounded.” Caesar would often walk around in field hospitals and thank his men and encourage them.

Discipline, harsh and sometimes random seemed to be the core value of Roman generalship. Two legions that ran in the face of an enemy were given lots by Consul Fabius Rullus, who ten had the unlucky lot recipients beheaded in front of the rest of the legion. Caesar had a Legion decimated, literally every tenth man killed by his fellow Romans in order to properly instill fear. When a Roman legion went corrupt and plundered a city they were sent to protect, all 4000 were executed and denied burial. The Roman Senate also made it illegal to mourn their loss. Yet winning has a lot to do with the chemistry of loyalty. Caesar was a brutal disciplinarian no doubt, but he brought greatness to his country and he was generous and friendly with successful Centurion. When Caesar and Marc Anthony went to war against Pompey and Cato the Elder, many Centurions volunteered to fight for Caesar and equip themselves free of charge.

"Gaius Marius, son of Gaius, grandson of Gaius"

It would seem to soldiers who see their commanders ride into battle with them, that it is the Gods themselves or God himself or herself that they are chosen to win. Caesar saw as much battle as the lowliest legionnaire, and avoided quite literally the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Robert E. Lee often rode in front of his infantry before a battle and cajoled them into fighting harder. So did Robert The Bruce, and so did many Roman generals. Bravery, or the perception that one is brave was indeed an ingredient to every successful general in the days before remote battle. Not every consul engendered the affection of his or her troops. Surely some of these political poseurs and lifelong apparachtniks of the Senate and big Roman trade associations were no more experienced than one might consider US Senator today, or a lobbyist. It is all the more relevant then that Marius created a formalized order of battle that paved the way to success for even the most vile of politicians.

The Romans also consulted with seers and mystics and priests to stack the decks for victory with the supernatural forces they saw in every jot and tittle of creation. Often oracles performed rituals in the presence of commanders and senior staff, and occasionally these rites were performed before or after a pep talk. And on the occasion that Romans commanded mercenaries who worshiped different deities, these rituals were also tolerated.

Roman generals also had access to one of the most powerful weapons known to man: cash. Tribes in occupied territories could be placated with gold, or horses or chariots, or whatever the currency of the realm happened to be. Roman generalship involved inculcating in fighting between rival tribes, using one as a hedge against the other. The Carthaginians almost conquered the Mediterranean exclusively with mercenaries culled from the Iberian Peninsula. That said, one would swears out an oath to the flag is probably preferable to one who swears out an oath to money.


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