Roman Battle Tactics

Roman Battle Tactics


Studying the Roman fighting style is no simple
thing. It spans over a thousand years, to say nothing of the Byzantines, which is a
different animal entirely. In the west, if you look at Rome’s basic tactical framework
in a general way, it can be divided into three distinct systems. These systems have remarkably
little to do with each other, and were constructed to accomplish three very different goals.
It’s actually astounding that they all belong to the same culture. Today I want to talk
about all three of these in turn. Let’s get started. The Phalanx system was the first system Rome
adopted. It came directly from Greece, as a result of early Greek influence on the Italian
peninsula. A Phalanx was a unit of tightly grouped armoured spear-men, who moved and
fought as one. There’s a reason that the Greek fighting style was being appropriated by these
foreigners. Phalanxes were tough. Damned near invincible, actually. They were slow, but
once they came into contact with the enemy the combined weight of the entire unit was
too much for anybody to handle, unless it was met with another phalanx. So the early Romans straight up stole this
fighting technique. They used it with a lot success against some of their neighbours who
fought in a much less organized way. The standard way to array phalanxes was in one long straight
line, as you can see here. Any enemy charging into this would have been met with one giant
wall of spears. The early battles would have been pretty lopsided, as the Romans just plowed
over these undisciplined guys in loose formations. The only bad things about phalanxes is that
they were very slow, and had a hard time turning. Also, because of the way that everybody had
to support the spear-men at the front, they couldn’t fight in more than one direction
at once. The more traditional way to counteract this was to put a lot of cavalry on the wings
to protect from any flanking attacks. They could also chase down any faster enemies that
the phalanxes couldn’t catch. For whatever reason the Romans never really did much of
this, but they were successful all the same. This worked for a long time, but it started
to get the Romans into trouble as they began to expand into central Italy. This area is
mountainous, which is not ideal for the slow moving straight lines of the phalanx. It’s
hard to keep a line like this perfectly straight as you move up a hill, for example. If you
have to move around some rocky, impassable terrain, the entire line has to be broken
up, which is the perfect time for the enemy to attack. Moreover, the inhabitants of this
region were no slouches. They used hit and run tactics, and lots of projectile weapons.
Even when they closed in for hand to hand fighting, these were tough mountain men, and
they gave the Romans a run for their money. The Romans suffered a string of defeats, and
began to seriously reevaluate how they fought. Maniples were an ingenious solution to this
very specific problem with the phalanx: inflexibility. Maniples were extremely flexible. First of
all, maniples were smaller, standalone units. This meant that they were capable of fighting
in isolation, or even in several directions at once. A phalanx would usually crumble if
it ever got surrounded, whereas a maniple could shift, and adapt. Second, they could
move much more fluidly. Instead of arraying themselves in big solid lines like the phalanx
did, maniples arrayed themselves like this, in a checkerboard pattern. This was a fundamental
change. Now they don’t have to step out of formation if they wanted to or go over hilly
terrain, or dodge trees and rocks, or cross a stream. The entire formation can kind of
flex and bend as necessary, while maintaining its readiness. It wasn’t just the formations that changed.
Their entire fighting ethos was now different. The solid walls of spear-men were now mostly
gone, replaced by men wielding swords and shields. Individual maniples now found themselves
in specialized roles. There were three major ones. First, the hastati. This is where the young
and inexperienced men served. The hastati were always placed at the front of the line,
and were the first to come into contact with the enemy. Hastati were outfitted with a sword and a
shield, but also with javelins that the entire unit could throw at a moment’s notice. This
was a big innovation. The phalanx system had no ranged units, which meant that faster enemy
units could easily stay at a safe distance if they wanted to. Now, not only were the
maniples faster, but almost every Roman unit was now a ranged unit. At a moment’s notice
they could hit an enemy with a volley of javellins, which must have fundamentally changed the
dynamics of the battlefield. The hastati were always the first to close
in and make contact with the enemy. Then, after some time, an order would be given,
and the hastati would swap out with the second line, who were called the principes. These
were older veterans, who were outfitted similarly to the hastati, but with slightly better equipment. Under normal circumstances these two lines
would alternate for the duration of the battle, giving each other a break as needed. In a
perfect world, the third line would never be used. These were the triarii, and they
were the oldest veterans. We can think of them as the elite troops. Unlike the hastati
and the principes, the triarii retained some phalanx-like qualities. They were still spear-men,
but were organized more loosely, so that the entire unit wouldn’t crumble if they ever
broke formation. The triarii were so rarely used that the Romans
had a saying a for when something was going badly. They would say “it’s come to the triarii.”
I’ve always liked this saying, because it has a meaning that’s unique to Roman culture.
It means that “the enemy has broken through, and this is the last thing that we can do
to respond.” But it also means “there’s a major problem, and it’s time for the real
adults to step in and fix it.” It’s weirdly pragmatic and optimistic. Sometimes an entire campaigning season would
go by and the triarii would only be used once or twice. This made them crazy. We’re told
that sometimes the triarii were forced to sit on the ground during battle, like children,
because they had this reputation of charging in against orders. They sometimes resorted
to begging to be allowed to get into the fight. I looked and looked and can’t remember where
I saw this, but years ago I read something that said that a Roman general put his triarii
up front during a battle because he was getting reports that there might be a mutiny if they
had to sit this one out. These were tough dudes, and when they were
finally unleashed they fought like hell. Let’s go back for a moment to the Battle of the
Trebia River. If you recall, the first two Roman lines fully committed, and some in the
centre were in the process of cutting through the enemy and marching right off the field.
These were the hastati and the principes. The third line, the triarii, were held was
back, as usual. When Hannibal’s epic surprise attack emerged from the long grass, the triarii
turned, fixed spears, and stopped the attack dead in its tracks. They did their job perfectly,
and didn’t give an inch. It was the younger men up front who panicked, and started to
give in to the Carthaginians on the wings. These same triarii were the ones who were
last seen getting surrounded, holding their ground, and making a heroic last stand as
the rest of the Romans were killed, captured, or driven off. I’ll say it again: these were
tough dudes. Rome used the maniple system for a long time,
and Rome eventually rose from a regional to a global power. But as this was happening,
they started to notice some structural issues. The maniple was designed to face off against
hill people of central Italy, and now Romans had men fighting from Spain to Asia. A lot
of the time there were now in the position of fighting huge, well organized armies, from
rich and powerful kingdoms. Things had changed. Rome needed to reorganize. The solution that
they came up with is called the cohort system. Before any major changes were made, one thing
was abundantly clear. Rome needed bigger units. The maniples were just too damn small now.
Against the hill people of central Italy, one maniple here and one maniple there could
make the difference in the battle. But now, armies were huge, and a single maniple here
or there was kind of irreverent. As the first thing, going into this reform, the size of
each unit was quadrupled. Armies went from having 40 maniples to having 10 cohorts. But cohorts weren’t just giant maniples. They
also fundamentally changed how they operated. The different experience levels and different
specializations were completely done away with, and each cohort became more or less
identical. The big strategic change that this facilitated
was that the army now emphasized mobility. Unlike the maniple system, these soldiers
carried their own gear, set up their own camps, and cooked their own meals. These guys could
construct bridges, clear forests, build roads, I mean, anything. These new units were designed
to be entirely self sufficient. They needed to be able to ditch their supplies and march
off at a moment’s notice if they needed to. And they often did. You can see the appeal
of this kind of army. When you have guys stationed thousands of kilometers from the capital in
sometimes hostile territory, you don’t necessarily want a bunch of specialists. In other words
you don’t want to risk having the backbone of your army wiped out during a battle when
reinforcements are months away. You want the entire army to be your backbone, if that makes
any sense. There were new tactical realities that emerged
naturally from this new organizational structure. With these larger cohorts, it was kind of
like each army was made up of 10 smaller armies. This meant that the Romans could now do things
differently on the battlefield. They could now delegate a lot of authority to sub-commanders,
who could use their own initiative. Under the old system you might have generals saying
“move this maniple up, move this maniple back, send these six maniples over here to reinforce
our line over there,” and so on. Under this new system, a general could say “take this
cohort and hold the line over there, fall back if you need to, and reinforce this other
line if you can, but use your own judgement.” It’s important to emphasize that almost every
cohort was identical, which was a radical change. It meant that any individual unit
could step in for another one without any disruption. It also meant that if they wanted
to supersize an army, all they had to do was add a few extra cohorts. There was never a
situation where they were thinking “I have way too many triarii and not enough hastati”
There was no such thing as a lop-sided army. Every unit was the same, and self-contained. So what did it mean that they used all of
these different tactical structures? It’s not like one was a natural consequence of
the previous one. These are three radically different systems. The Romans were successful
with all of them, but they each accomplish very different things. So what gives? Above all else, the Romans were pragmatic.
When a thing stopped working, they ditched it, unsentimentally. They adopted the phalanx
fighting system to solve a very specific problem, which was that they had some powerful neighbours
that already used the phalanx, and at the time it was considered unstoppable. They adopted
the maniple system to solve another very specific problem, which was that they needed to fight
on uneven terrain, and to respond to hit and run attacks from creative, less well organized
enemies. The cohort system was adopted to solve yet another very specific problem, which
was that they were now fighting larger, more traditional armies, in remote, far flung provinces.
All of a sudden Rome needed a large scale, professional, standardized army, so they just
invented one. This constant tactical innovation allowed
Rome to flourish for over a thousand years in the west. That’s no small thing. This constant
change also meant that for them, failure was an option. Each time they were defeated in
a major battle, they made significant changes in their military, and usually for the better.
That’s a cultural trait that’s hard to teach, but it was probably Rome’s greatest strength.

100 Comments

  1. In a way the samnites are responsible for Rome’s later military conquests since after the samnite wars caused Rome to abandon the phalanx

  2. If these were the battle tactics then what were legions? I feel like I have heard of that name a lot but it was not mentioned in this video.

  3. Sincerely thank you!!, I always wanted to learn about that stuff, school never tought me this. I love your channel and hope to see much moore stuff!!! P.s sorry for my bad English:D

  4. Any chance you're interested in revisiting this topic? I feel like you might have more insight on the topic now? Maybe not.. However, I want to know more – and the audio could do with an upgrade!

  5. Regarding the Phalanx turning, couldn't each soldier just raise their shields/Spears upwards, rotate towards the desired direction, and lower their shields and Spears back down to the new forward position? Not sure why the entire square has to rotate rather than each individual point

  6. Another important part of the Cohort system was that it allowed any able male to join the military instead of restricting recruitment to Rome’s upper classes who could afford to buy their personal equipment themselves.
    This meant that Rome could more easily raise new armies even in the middle of a war or after major losses because they didn’t have to wait a generation for a new crop of upper-class men to be born. They could recruit from the masses of urban poor that had accumulated in Rome and throughout the empire.

  7. Roman Battle Systems

    (1) The Phalaynx System (0:37)

    – Taken From Greece
    – Tough but Slow
    – One Giant Straight Line of Spears

    – Not Ideal on Mountainous Terrain

    (2) Maniples (2:35)
    + Checkerboard Pattern
    + Flexible
    + Swords and Shields

    (A) Hastati (3:29)
    – Young and Inexperienced
    Frontline
    + Sword and Shield
    + also Javelins

    (B) Principes (4:17)
    + Older Veterans, More Experienced
    + Swap out with Hastati

    (C) Triarii (4:39)
    + The Oldest/Most Experienced

    + The Elite Veterans
    + Last Resort ("It's come to the Triarii)

    – The guys got impatient, really wanted to fight

    (3) Cohort System (6:53, 7:20)
    40 Manipoles —–> 10 Cohorts
    + Mobile + Self-Sufficient

    Sub-Commanders

    9:40 So What?
    + PRAGMATISM

  8. Basically: Polybian: Lol Spears Gae
    Marian: Maniples no good
    Imperial: OOF
    Post Cohort: Lmao Why big armi when can work small time

  9. If you're like me and watching after the three battles against Hannibal you'll be mildly surprised that they actually had tactics.

  10. “Phalanx” is pronounced with short “a” in both syllables. As in Falcon and not as in pay. Pathology and patronise have a similar sound.

  11. I find it funny that we are talking about Roman strategies after watching a couple videos of Romans failing at strategy.

  12. Why would they replace spears with the shorter less aggressive sword? Just use a smaller spear until swords are longer.

  13. Very Well done but coulda broken down the cohort better and explained how they worked on the field. Plus the breakdown to the centurions.

  14. This is why I greatly respect romans. They might just be the most pragmatic, get-your-shit-together of the ancients. The greeks did a great job thinking about ideas and the romans about making things happen both very important.

  15. People say it does not make sense to lead with your weakest troops leaving your veteran Tiarii last, well consider the moral side of it, if you lead with the Triarii and they were wiped out the chances are your Hestati would break instantly, plus having the Triarii at the back gave a great deal of confidence to the Hestati, firstly they knew their rear was covered and secondly, they knew if they broke they had to break and get past the Triarii. Better to stand and fight.

  16. I have an understanding the Roman infantry always practiced and fought each other in times when they were not engaged in battle. Tough guys.

  17. What I do not understand in your explanation about the phalanx: it was not fit for a country with mountains. Greece is also full of mountains, I think?

  18. HC: Maniples were just too damn small now. Against the hill people of central Italy, one maniple here and one maniple there can make all the difference in the world. But now, armies were huge, and a single maniple here or there was kind of irrelevant.

    Battle of Tigranocerta: Am I a joke to you?

  19. This is the main reason why the Roman army was sooo hard to beat was because of their discipline and flexibility, whereas some armies use one type of tactics or few but they lacked the flexibility to drop a tactic or doctrine in a short time people and are willing to change their views to warfare and adapt to different situations, the only reason why Rome fell was mostly because politics and other reasons, also stating earlier, the Roman army was very well disciplined and well organized meaning less troops are willing to break when under pressure, also the Roman logistics were a dream compared to many other armies and could be equaled by the Chinese in terms of logistics, as Nepoleon once said ‘an army marches on its stomach’

  20. I have to say I'm a little curious though about you comment on the Romans abandoning the Phalanx once they encountered more mountainous areas. The Phalanx came from Greece obviously, and Greece is pretty much world famous for its mountainous terrain and Haley divides between the different city states and provinces. Curious that they would have maintained this formation and fighting style for so long, considering their geography oh, but the romans had to abandon that as soon as they encountered the same.

  21. Interesting way to look at this is kind of an interesting reflection of the evolution of Roman culture itself.

    Phalanx>>Maniples>>Cohorts/Legions

    Is basically tribal warfare*>>warrior culture>> industrialized expeditionary warfare.

    * now yes, I realize some people might find this a strange description, because when they think of tribalism to think of Africans with monkey hide shield and giant rings in their ears. I would contend that the early Romans were still operating under a tribal system, it's just how white people do tribes, European tribalism which was obviously a very different thing than what you would find throughout Africa Asia or the Americas. Anyway, it was pretty much all the men who could fight would fight, and other tribes would do the same. I will describe the maniples triarii system as more "warrior culture" like, because it was somewhat more organized, but there was still a lot of influence on people's particular social roles, their individual status or wealth, and so on. And of course the late Republican Legion was, at least in the ancient world, the epitome of industrialized expeditionary warfare. Professional soldiers to the core. pable of fighting, military engineering, civil administration and pretty much everything in between. Made to be rolled out in large numbers, in the tens if not hundreds of thousands, and spread all over the known world.

  22. Triarii, make me think of two (old) guys fighting side-by-side and laughing as one of them get's cut down. Probably the spartans of Rome

  23. 8:56
    sort of like how if you wanted to repair something.
    if you have 300 different, highly specific parts, then it may work better.
    however if any one part breaks, you will need replacements.
    compared to if you have say, 10 parts, then you can shift things around and can keep it going with a more average toolset.

  24. How would one become a general? I'd love to be one back in rome. The satisfaction you'd get knowing your plan and orders worked haha

  25. I think also worth noting is that armies in the days of the maniple system were made up of mostly men from wealthy/noble families who could afford to personally buy weapons and armor. This limited the size of armies and made replenishing an army after a series if defeats difficult because the pool of eligible men took decades to recover.
    A key reform in the switch over to cohorts was that pretty much any man was eligible to become a soldier. This dramatically expanded the pool of recruits and allowed both the creation of larger armies and recruitment from the inhabitants of any province instead of just men from Rome itself.

  26. 1:02 anyone else see little dots between the squares?
    I hope its an optical illusion else i might be having a stroke…

  27. The battle of Caudine Forks, where the Samnites prove once and for all that if you have your enemy down, you should destroy him utterly.

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