How quickly could the Roman legions march? How did it compare to their cavalry?

How quickly could the Roman legions march? How did it compare to their cavalry?

In the history of Rome there are numerous instances of legions being marched up and down Europe, from Spain to Rome and from Rome to Syria. I'm interested to know how quickly these armies could move? Did it take a half a year to move from the Alps to Rome or did it take a week?

Also how does that speed compare to the pace of the mobile cavalry reserve used to such great effect by the late Roman emperors?

This (fun) site assumes 10 miles per day, while adding the necessary disclaimer "it depends".

However, I was not able to confirm this number in the cited source: John Pebbie's The Roman War Machine seems to refer to "10 miles" only in specific relation to a march undertaken by Caesar's army on its final approach to the Battle of Sabis.

The same book contains several concrete numbers (including references to primary sources) for speeds perhaps achievable by the Roman postal service and by individuals traveling on important missions. Here is an example:

Plutarch relates that Julius Caesar on one occasion travelled 100 miles a day for eight days in succession, driving in a hired raeda.

It relates that cavalry ("widely deployed in a protective screen around the army on the march, and penetrating deeper into the surrounding countryside") could have covered 40 miles a day. It also quotes Vegetius (5th century CE) on the practice of training marches with complete armor over distances of ten miles from a camp plus return:

Decem milia passuum armati instructique omnibus telis pedites militari gradu ire ac redire iubebantur in castra…

And FYI, here is a later account (again from Andrew Wheatcroft's The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe) that quantifies daily distances traveled by an Ottoman army in the 17th century:

The whole force could advance only at the pace of ox carts and the cannon, perhaps twelve miles a day.

From the Summary in Observations on marching Roman Legionaries…

  • the Roman legionary probably carried no more than 40 kg of clothing, equipment, food, arms and armour;
  • a legionary in a typical campaigning day, marching on-road 29 km in approximately 7:30 h and building a temporary marching camp, probably expended between 5500 to 6000 kilocalories of energy, and required the same in replenishment;
  • the legionary would require between 9 and 11 litres of water to avoid dehydration and heat stress;
  • off-road marching required the expenditure of less energy than when using a road;
  • a typical legionary (body weight 80 kg, load weight 40 kg, march velocity 1.2741 m/s), could have marched along any of the roads in Britain for an energy expenditure of between of 501 to 542 watts;
  • Roman legionaries had an on-road march velocity in the range 1.2741 to 1.3411 m/s (2.85 to 3.0mph or 4.59kph to 4.83kph), with the lower value being more likely to have been the more common velocity;
  • at an on-road velocity of 1.274 m/s for 29 km, the last ranks of armies greater than 3 legions in size would have arrived after sunset, therefore, large Roman armies marched in multiple columns (August 11th daylight hours);
  • Roman legionaries were expected to march for 7 to 9:30 h each day - these times were not exceptional, did not overly tire the soldiers, and would have been sustainable, that is, the norm for either on- or off-road marching;
  • off-road velocities were probably in the range 0.6706 m/s (1.5 mph, 2.41 kph) to 0.7639 m/s (1.71 mph, 2.75 kph);
  • off-road, single column marching over 15 km or more, and for legion strengths greater than 2, was not a normal, sustainable option and requires other marching strategies;
  • all armies over 2 legions in size probably marched off-road in multiple columns to reach their destinations;
  • a) Roman armies of 1 and 2 legions in size could have marched in single column along a road; b) armies greater than 2, possibly 3, legions marched in multiple columns, whether on- or off-road.

I know this is an old question but I think there is a really good tool that is not mentioned here. There is a comprehensive model that was created by Stanford to model how long travel took in Roman times, since you are interested in Military be sure to set your options correctly, under Mode Foot be sure to select Rapid Military March (or Ox-Cart or whatever depending on the armies method of travel,) also Select River and change to Military. This model allows for so many variables including type of march, season of march, method of transport. It will give you a very good approximation of the travel time from different cities in the Empire.

Scipio Africanus legions marched on an average of 26 miles / day to get from Tarraco to Carthago Nova in 6 days, but those are extreme numbers on a very forced speed, usually, it would be half that amount.

John Harrel in "The Nisibis War" uses an estimate of 10 miles per day -- roughly 16km a day -- for "normal" conditions. They could go faster, at the cost of exhaustion or a less well-developed camp, or they could go slower, if conditions like heat or terrain forced them.

One of the interesting facts is that a large enough force would have the vanguard and scouts setting up the next camp before the rear guard left the previous camp!

The question is how quickly could Roman legions move? Well a single soldier in the modern U.S army is required to complete a Loaded March, carrying weight of up to 70 pounds, of 12 miles in less than 3 hours to attain an Expert Infantryman Badge. The 'Raid March' practised by the French Foreign Legion requires a march of 75 miles in 3 days in full combat gear carrying rifle and 70 pounds of gear. A Full Pace march for a Roman Legionary in basic training required a march in daylight hours of 22 miles. Clearly it is entirely possible a Roman Legion could march 20-30 miles per day if needed. It is well documented Roman soldiers never stopped training during their 25 year service and it may well be a mistake to underestimate the fitness and endurance of a Roman soldier compared to that of a modern soldier especially given the only mode of troop movement available to a Roman foot soldier was the march.

Legion Vs Phalanx: Two Powerhouse Formations of Ancient Warfare

The organization from Homeric style hero warfare to tightly packed hoplite warfare was world changing. This powerful Hellenic formation allowed the ancient Greeks to hold off the powerful Persian invasion and spread Hellenic culture throughout the Mediterranean. The Macedonian phalanx took the concept of cohesive group warfare to another level with the sarissa armed phalangites and under Philip and Alexander, steamrolled every opponent in front of them.

While Alexander’s empire grew and fragmented, The Romans were busy with their arduous task of conquering Italy. Initially adopting a hoplite style phalanx due to influence from Southern Italian Hellenic colonies, the army eventually transformed into the flexible manipular legion. This transformation was likely a result of the Samnite wars fought in the varied mountainous terrain of central Italy where the Romans needed a more adaptable formation.

The Roman manipular legion and the Macedonian phalanx were each pivotal factors in the successes of their states, but was one formation actually better than the other?

The best descriptions of the formations come from the historian Polybius. Raised in ancient Greece, Polybius fought in Hellenic battles before being sent to Rome as a hostage, though he was given great freedoms during his stay. In Rome Polybius studied Roman warfare and so had experience with both phalanx and maniple style warfare.

By Roman Legionnaires – CC BY-ND 2.0

In his histories, Polybius directly address the strengths and weakness of both formations. For the phalanx, the sixteen-man deep formation had the first five ranks with their spears extending out of the formation while the remaining ranks held their spears upright or at an angle to deflect missiles. The tight formation with the average phalangites taking up a frontage of three feet meant that, theoretically, the average soldier, who needed twice the frontage to operate with sword or spear, faced a total of ten spear points.

Sarissa Phalanx

Not purely a defensive formation, the phalanx could advance forward with pikes churning through virtually any opponent with ease. Polybius states that the biggest weakness of the phalanx is its uselessness in rugged terrain, but we know that under competent leadership the phalanx had won victories even while crossing rivers.

The Roman manipular formation was quite a unique layout. With three lines, one behind the other the Romans deployed in separate maniples with each line having a maniple-sized gap between units, with those gaps covered by the next line back creating a checkerboard formation. The exact method of this formation engaging in battle has been questioned due to the large gaps, but it seems that the gaps remained while engaged to allow the rear lines through to support when needed.

A Greek phalanx charging into battle, as peltasts throw spears over the heads of the hoplites.

There are several key differences in the formations. The maniple was fluid, with each maniple led by centurions who were encouraged to take initiative and lead by example. The phalanx was much more rigid, but overwhelmingly powerful in a frontal assault. The individual soldier of the phalanx was tied to the cohesion of his unit, but had the safety of multiple spearheads between the front row and the enemy.

The individual Roman had more room to operate, with a large shield and effective sword allowing them to confidently engage and defend individually and as a group by locking shields. The javelins thrown by the maniples were also an effective formation breaking tool used to lessen the impact of enemy charges or create holes to exploit with their own charge.

The two formations actually met in battle a handful of times with varied results. The first combats were during Pyrrhus’ invasion of Italy in 280 BCE. Three major battles were fought with the first two being Pyrrhic victories for Pyrrhus. At Heraclea and Asculum the tried and true Macedonian phalanx faced the Roman maniple that had only been established 40-100 years before.

The Hoplite Phalanx

Pyrrhus won these battles but the maniples put forth a valiant effort and caused heavy casualties. At the battle of Beneventum a few years later the Romans finally prevailed, with help from Pyrrhus’ elephants which charged back into his own lines. Details for these battles are scarce but while it seems that though the phalanx did indeed steamroll through the Romans, it was done with great difficulty and at Beneventum the flexibility of the maniples allowed them to seize the openings made by the rampaging elephants to cause a rout.

After Pyrrhus’ invasion, the Romans fought titanic wars against Carthage that brought them to superpower status in the Mediterranean. Barely after wrapping up the second Punic war, the Romans invaded Macedon to take the fight to Philip V, who had been an ally of Carthage and was now harassing Roman-allied Hellenic cities. The armies of Rome and Philip’s phalanx army met at Cynoscephalae, with a large hill separating the two camps.

Philip decided to take the initiative and marched out first with the right half of his phalanx, so that they could take the hill and attack downhill. As the Roman left met them and held firm, the Roman right marched up the hill in order to deny the rest of Philip’s army the downhill advantage. While advancing an unnamed officer noticed that they were marching right past the vulnerable rear of the Macedonian right phalanx and peeled off a large enough force to flank the engaged phalanx and quickly rout them.

Meanwhile, the remaining Roman right wing advanced up the hill and met the rest of Philips army as they were arriving in bunches. The flexibility of the maniples allowed them to surround and destroy each unit until the rest of Philip’s forces fled. This battle shows the ingenuity and freedoms allowed to Roman officers to enable them to make a battlefield decision that profoundly influenced the outcome.

Phalanx fighting on a black-figure amphora, c. 560 BC.

The last great example of maniple and phalanx battle is found at the battle of Pydna during the third Macedonian war between Rome and Perseus. The decisive battle happened on flat ground not too far from the site of Thermopylae. The Macedonians outnumbered the Romans about 44,000 to 29,000 but both forces were equal in cavalry.

The two armies lined up, each splitting the cavalry on the wings and the Macedonian phalanx advanced. The Roman infantry met the phalanx and did not break, but were steadily forced back towards the broken ground behind them. As the long phalanx line pushed forward, they began to break formation as some areas pushed forward more than others and the uneven ground began to break the formation.

In small groups at first, the Romans dove into these narrow gaps in the lines and fought to widen them. As gaps grew, more, presumably fresh, men from the rear lines were fed through to completely infiltrate dozens of segments of the phalanx and the Macedonians soon broke. The cavalry fight was even but as soon as the infantry ran the cavalry followed suit.

Roman military tombstones.

This last battle shows the small unit tactics for which the maniple was built towards but also shows how well the maniple fit the Romans as a people. Romans were fiercely brave, and it took quite a feat of bravery to be among the first to jump into an enemy formation bristling with spears to open up gaps for your fellow soldiers.

The battles certainly showcase the manipular legion’s flexibility over the powerful but stiff Macedonian phalanx, but it would have been impossible with all the different variables to find a perfect battlefield matchup of the two formations. Each of the battles mention featured varying skill and experiences for the commanders and the armies in general.

The Macedonian phalanx continued to be used from Germany to Egypt and did prove to be effective. Even a minimally equipped and trained phalanx was still a forward moving force to be reckoned with.

The pliability of the Roman maniple allowed them to fight in any size group from whole legion advances to the individual soldier, ready for any occasion on the battlefield with two javelins, a large shield, and an effective gladius.

2 Answers 2

The Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453, and for a long time it "coped" fairly well in its interactions with Western feudal states.

More generally, I don't think any serious historian believes in a monotonic "upward march of progress". The Roman Empire at its height was better at some things and worse at others, compared with its successors 1000 years later. In particular, Roman bureaucracy, logistics, and civil engineering were not equalled in Western Europe until 1500 CE or later.

There is no reason to suppose Rome would "collapse" if the tribes inhabiting Germany in 100 AD were suddenly replaced by the Holy Roman Empire. The Romans are hardly going to say, "In Jupiter's name, these people have slightly better metallurgy than us, our society is at an end!" Instead they would probably learn to coexist, as they did with other neighbouring empires such as Persia.

For a real social "collapse" to take place, the technology gap needs to be much bigger -- think of Spain encountering the Aztecs and Incas. (Even then, the decline of native American empires had as much to do with European diseases as military conquest -- see Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond for an interesting discussion.)

That´s hard to answer. the Roman Empire was/is highly adaptive, and it still exists in the form of the Roman Catholic Church. Remember that Rome was first a kingdom, then a republic, and after that an empire. If during the imperial times, they collected taxes from provinces providing the bureaucracy and military protection necessary to commerce, and a Roman lifestyle, after the fall, Rome became the religious center of Europe. The Vatican remained as powerful as the old empire, dictating the policies and taxing eventually more territories (such as Vikings), without the burden of maintaining legions. And the Pope also de-facto ruled Rome until napoleonic times.

The fall of the Empire was due to several factors, but one important factor was the barbarian tribes with agile horseback units using pillage tactics. The open roads of the old "globalized" empire were obsolete, the foot based legions were not as fast as the barbarians. When the last Emperor was replaced by barbarians, the church became an independent power. They ended up converting all barbarians, that gladly payed high taxes to be crowned by. Romans. But the true power remained at the hands of the roman pope (187 of 217 popes were italians in all history).

It is hard to compare Feudalism with the Classical age. As for the "Holy Roman Emperor", it was just an honorific title! In pure military sense, you should compare some specific leader, such as Charlemagne of the Carolingian Empire with a Roman Emperor, such as Augustus or Constantine. I don´t think that Rome would stand heavy armored horsemen and the weapon advancements of the Franks. By the other hand, the Vatican is in Rome, how would you deal with its absence in this historical "twilight zone" scenario? How powerful the Franks would be without the catholic church? Would the servants still serve their masters? or defect to Rome?

Jugurthine War

The Jugurthine War, as far as wars in Ancient times go, was relatively inconsequential. If not for the fame Gaius Marius received after the war — and the implementation of the Marian reforms — it probably wouldn’t be mentioned as anything more than a footnote in history.

Still, it is a good indication of Sulla’s personality — and Gaius’s too a that. You see, the Jungurthine war was a war started because of a man named Jungurtha. Jungurtha was in the privileged position of being the King of Numidia in 112 BC. This was not what Rome wanted though.

When the previous King of Numida died he split the kingdom into three parts. One for Jugurtha and one for each of his two sons (Jugurtha was his illegitimate nephew). Jugurtha did not like this so he declared war, and showing himself far more capable than the other two, he swiftly became the king of all Numidia. This did not please Rome — the previous king, Micispa’s, father was a staunch ally of Rome (Micispa’s father was called Masinissa and died in 149 BC). Whether it was some kind of sentimental attachment to the long-dead ally or just an excuse to expand their territory, Rome declared war.

After five years of failed attempts — many because Jugurtha was bribing Roman senators left and right — Rome was getting sick, and sent in their fourth commander, Gaius Marius. And by extension, Sulla. It was 107 BC at this point. The previous commander, Quintus Metellus, had come close but had decided the war could never be won without the capture of Jugurtha himself. This is where we first see the daring and genius of Sulla.

Instead of doing what most Romans had been doing — and would do for a majority of their wars and throwing as many men as possible at the issue, Sulla saw through to its heart. The Romans didn’t need to conquer any cities or the country or any of that — they only needed Jugartha, as figured out by Quintus Metellus. So instead of doing that, Sulla cut a deal.

Sulla convinced the father-in-law of Jugurtha, the king of then Mauretania to kidnap Jugurtha. Now, this is not completely fair to Marius as Sulla did impart to him the final decision, but any major part he played is not really important anyway. It doesn’t matter. Want to know why? Because Marius took all the credit regardless of his contribution. He was the leader in charge and this was a normal occurrence amongst Romans.

“It is true that the one who celebrated a triumph for this was Marius, but those who envied him attributed the glory of the success to Sulla, and this secretly annoyed Marius.” — Plutarch, Life of Sulla.

This incident set the scene for the future relations between Sulla and Marius.

The Roman Army: Organization and Battle Tactics

The Roman army was the backbone of the empire’s power, and the Romans managed to conquer so many tribes, clans, confederations, and empires because of their military superiority. It was also the source of the empire’s economic and political strength, ensuring domestic peace so that trade could flourish. However, this peace was often coterminous with subjugation. The Emperor used the army to protect Rome and to control the people it had conquered.

The Roman army was also a tool of cultural assimilation. Some soldiers were away from their families for long periods of time, loosening their clan loyalties and replacing them with loyalty to Rome. The Roman army was a means by which a barbarian could become a citizen, but the process was not fast. Only when a soldier had served in the army for 25 years he could become a citizen of Rome.

Organization of the Roman Army

The army was organised in a very simple way:

5000 Legionaries (Roman Citizens who were in the army) would form a Legion.

The Legion would be split into centuries (80 men) controlled by a Centurion.

The centuries would then be divided into smaller groups with different jobs to perform.

A Roman Soldier

Roman soldiers had to be physically vigorous. They were expected to march up to 20 miles per day in line, wearing all their armor and carrying their food and tents.

Roman soldiers were trained to fight well and to defend themselves. If the enemy shot arrows at them they would use their shields to surround their bodies and protect themselves. This formation was know as ‘the turtle’.

They fought with short swords, daggers for stabbing and a long spear for throwing. They also carried a shield for protection as well as wearing armor.

The tactics were simple but versatile enough to face different enemies in multiple terrains: From the forests of Germania to the rocky planes of the Greek peninsula. For these and many other reasons the Roman army was the reason for the Empire’s existence for several centuries.

This article is part of our larger resource on the Romans culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Romans.

How quickly could the Roman legions march? How did it compare to their cavalry? - History

The Roman army was the backbone of the Roman Empire and one of the most successful armies in world history. It was well-trained, well-equipped, and well-organized. In order to guard such a large empire, the army took advantage of well built Roman roads to move about the empire quickly.

Who were the soldiers?

The soldiers in the Roman Legionary were all Roman citizens. They signed up to fight for 20 years. At the end of the 20 years they were generally awarded land and/or a large sum of money. This way the army was made up of trained and experienced soldiers. It also put land in the hands of loyal soldiers.

There were also non-citizen soldiers called auxiliaries. They joined for 25 years and were awarded Roman citizenship at the end of the 25 years. Roman citizenship was a big deal and came with lots of privileges.

How was the Roman Army organized?

The army was divided up into Legions of around 5400 soldiers. Legions were led by a Legate who was usually a Senator or a Governor. Legions were made up of ten groups of soldiers called cohorts. Cohorts were then further divided into groups of 80 men called centuries. The officers, or leaders, of each century were called centurions.

The government knew the importance of the Roman army and provided them with good armor and weapons. Roman soldiers had armor made of strips of strong iron. The iron made the armor strong and the strips made it flexible. They also had iron helmets which protected their heads and neck, but still let them have good vision for fighting. All of this iron armor was heavy, so they needed to be strong and in good shape. They also carried tall shields in some cases.

Roman Gladius by Juan Cabre Aguilo
  • Officers, such as centurions, wore large crests on their helmets. This allowed the soldiers to see them better in battle.
  • The average legionary carried at least 90 pounds of weight and often had to march 20 miles a day.
  • At its largest, the Roman army was made up of 30 legions, or over 150,000 soldiers. Counting the auxiliary soldiers, some estimate there were well over 1 million soldiers in the Roman army.
  • Gaius Marius, Roman consul and general, is largely credited with transforming the Roman army into the powerful group that conquered much of the civilized world.
  • The Romans used catapults to throw huge rocks which could knock down walls. They also used large crossbows called ballistas to fire arrows that were more the size of spears.

Roman ballista catapult by Unknown

How did Roman legionaries fight?

The equipment of the legionaries was tailored to ensure maximum efficiency. Soldiers first threw javelins (pila) to weaken the enemy’s first line. Then they drew their swords (gladii), which were used to stab in the clinch. The shield (scutum) was large enough for a soldier to successfully protect his body and light to be able to operate freely. During continuous workouts, legionaries learned to use weapons to perfection. All activities were to be automated, which transformed the Roman army into a machine.

In addition, in order to dominate the opponent, the Romans used numerous war machines (ballistas, scorpions, catapults) on the battlefields to throw stones or arrows at the opponent. The use of such means lowered the morale of the enemy and raised their own.

Many scientists also believe that stress related to the life-and-death fight meant that most of the soldiers avoided risky and bold moves. Instead, they approached the enemy soldier carefully. There were no fights for exhaustion. Instead, there were short periods of intense, fierce fighting. The first lines of troops often departed from each other for a short distance to regenerate, pull the wounded off, and then rush to the fight again. As the battle progressed, enormous physical and mental stress increased. Strength and willpower required constant support in comrades who could replace them in combat or get hurt. Finally, when a sudden breakdown occurred in one of the units, the slaughter began. The terror caused the soldiers to lose the last of their courage and cold blood, wanting to escape and save their lives. At that time, the key issues were morale, reserves and decisive command that could save the army from a dramatic defeat.

Vegetius in his work Epitoma rei militaris 1 devoted fragment to the escape from the battlefield:

Generals unskilled in war think a victory incomplete unless the enemy are so straightened in their ground or so entirely surrounded by numbers as to have no possibility of escape. But in such situation, where no hopes remain, fear itself will arm an enemy and despair inspires courage. When men find they must inevitably perish, they willingly resolve to die with their comrades and with their arms in their hands. The maxim of Scipio, that a golden bridge should be made for a flying enemy, has much been commended. For when they have free room to escape they think of nothing but how to save themselves by flight, and the confusion becoming general, great numbers are cut to pieces. The pursuers can be in no danger when the vanquished have thrown away their arms for greater haste. In this case the greater the number of the flying army, the greater the slaughter. Numbers are of no signification where troops once thrown into consternation are equally terrified at the sight of the enemy as at their weapons. But on the contrary, men when shut up, although weak and few in number, become a match for the enemy from this very reflection, that they have no resource but in despair.

Why the Roman legion was superior to the Macedonian phalanx

I've been thinking about this issue for a while now, but I think I've come to a conclusion, at least in my own head, and would like to know what you guys think of it.

I think it's quite simple: The Roman infantry could act as its own flanking force, and therefore it's own decisive arm, whereas the Macedonian infantry required a separate cavalry force to be the flanking and decisive arm. We see descriptions of exactly this in the battle of Pydna, for example, where the Roman legion could not pierce the phalanx frontally, so simply decided to flank them, in the SAME MANNER that the Macedonian cavalry would have done against an opponent. The fact that the Macedonian infantry could never pull this off (physically impossible because of the sarissa and shield imposing too much of a mobility burden ) I think is a systematic weakness. It's a weakness that comes as a price of having the best possible front-line offense/defense (it seems that frontally it was inferior to no other system it met), so the overall net value must be judged by weighing these two factors.

I think Alexander and Pyrrhus have shown that covering the flanks well can help to make up for this weakness of the phalanx rather well, and it led to great successes for them.

In the end, though, I think the Roman legion is the superior system precisely because it is the easier system to wield. You don't need to think about a perfectly executed cavalry command to pull off the decisive maneuver of battle. The infantry itself can do this for you. You don't have to think constantly about protecting the 'soft underbelly' of the phalanx with guarding forces. The infantry has no soft underbelly.

All this leads to a more versatile, more consistent, cookie cutter system that I think made the Romans so successful. When you had experienced commanders like Pyrrhus, the legion lost against the phalanx. If Pyrrhus had had more luck, perhaps we would be extolling the virtues of a macedonian phalanx and how it was the ultimate battle system in the hands of a master general. But I think that the numbers show us that this in itself was a shortcoming of the phalanx. In the distribution of generals, the majority are likely to be mediocre, and it's in that middle portion of the bell curve where the roman legion proved its worth as the most efficient system.


The Legion is more all-adaptable in terms of terrain. While the Phalanx, particularly the Hetairai, were almost invincible from the front, they quickly fell apart on more crooked terrain. They were also more vulnerable on the flanks than a legion and so, as you have suggested, the Macedonians had more to worry about and in which regard the Romans had less of a burden on their shoulders. Macedonians, with their Hetairai, Hypaspist, and Peltast infantry elements, had a slightly more complicated elements within their army which, in some regards, made them less cohesive than the Roman legionaries who, man-to-man, were more all-purpose and streamlined into a complete infantry soldier, with even front-line Hastatii able to function with the skirmishing ability of the Peltast, the flexibility of the Hypaspists, and the alternative defensive holding power and offensive push of the Hetairai. The last factor that proved decisive at such encounters as Cynoscephelae was that Macedonian armies took longer to form up, given their more diffuse elements.

All of these, as well as sometimes greater initiative at the lower level command levels among the no-nonsense Romans are largely what account for their decisive victories over the Macedonians at Cynoscephelae and Pydna.


Dan Howard


Polybius is the go-to man for this question. Not only did he live during an era where a Roman legion facing a Macedonian phalanx still fell under the category of "current events," he had first hand experience with the Greek way of war as he had served as a cavalry officer in his youth. He had later opportunity to witness the Roman army in action while accompanying Scipio Aemilianus during the Third Punic War.



Legion vs phalanx is the worst descriptor. Equites and velites are both part of the Roman legion. What you're actually comparing is Roman heavy infantry, or even better described, line infantry, so the Hastati, Principes, Triarii. Or maniples. Makes sense since the phalanx was only one part of the Hellenic Army, often not the main effort. But let's explore why Roman line infantry was better.

- Simpler drill. Roman system was based on militia participation. Conscript the army in Rome, have them report back a week later with equipment, march off to war. Typically there was little to no mention of army wide drill conducted, though some very basic type was probably done early on. Compare this to the Hellenic phalangite, who required months of drill by knowledgeable trainers before they could maneuver. Right there, one is way harder to produce then the other, harder to replace, more valuable.

- Flexibility. Probably the most important, most heavily involved in Polybius' opinion. Romans maneuvered in more lines (reserves), gaps in lines, looser formations. They had javelin missile weapons, the bane of any line infantry, and emphasized the sword for close combat. They could be turned easily, they could be maneuvered easily. They could fight equally well on the side of a brush filled mountain side as a flat wheat filled plain. Their opponents in the phalanx could not. Less flexible, rigid formation, necessity for strict rank and file, marching in step, cohesion a must. They could do not navigate rough terrain without losing that cohesion, their order would collapse. While the Romans had no issues with gaps, to the phalanx they were deadly. They generally fought in one line, once committed there was little ability to change their direction.

- Ease of deployment. A Roman general wanting to choose terrain his men can fight in has infinitely more options than his Hellenic opponent. The way ancient warfare worked, opposing armies were often inside of a days march, or closer, from one another for sometimes weeks, if not longer. During this time they maneuvered around the area trying to get to better positions, cut off the other guy's supply lines or deny foraging. Maneuver warfare. By and large a properly put together Hellenic army was roughly equal to a Mid Republican army in terms of logistics and speed. However, there were simply tons more terrain, especially in the hilly areas of Greece and Asia Minor where these battles occurred, that better suited Romans, while hindering the phalanx. Occasionally these battles occurred in terrain favoring the phalanx over maniple of lines, but even then neither were the main effort or else the fight can probably be better described as a skirmish (like the infantry action at Thermopylae).

Romans marching cadence

Man, this is frustrating. How is it you cant decipher that formation is not the same as marching in step?

I can take one hundred people, organize them in five equal ranks, have them all face to the right, order them to walk, and then they will remain organized. All without marching them in step. They all don't need their left feet striking the ground at the same time. They dont need a musical instrument, chant, or cadence because they dont need to be in step.

Disciplined Formation=/=marching in step

Stop trying to fit your own 20th century ideals on people who didnt think like you do unless you can find true evidence supporting it.

That Vegetius line you keep quoting references more about timed marches than anything else, which is why the "military step" line is so confusing. The context is kind of screwy and its not even known where at all he got the info from, because Vegetius was regurgitating info, taking little pieces of info dating to very specific times and curcumstances, and then he would generalize them as if all Romans did them. We know they didn't, because other better sources conflict with Vegetius.



In regards to the former as evidence there is primarily Vegetius' "ad gradum militarem", the military step. But if you actually read numerous translations of it (or in original Latin if you can), its not clearly meaning anything because the context changes in a few lines from possibly meaning the Romans practiced to march in step, then the context changes completely to the next paragraph mentioning the military step having to do with pace speeds.

But overall, I'm not married to either idea. If they marched in step, they marched in step. I have nothing against marching in step, God knows I did it enough in my time in the military. My issue isn't just lack of real evidence, but also the necessity of it.

The descriptions of Roman battle lack any evidence of marching in step. In reality, it was the latter, they describe the opposite, they describe loose organization, much improvisation/intiative, and a more independent fighting style that doesn't need great order placed on it, because then it constrains it. The only evidence of a draconian automaton clock military machine is Appian and Vegetius.

The former gets a bit too wrapped up in describing battles too focused on collective fighting (especially compared to other contemporary sources describing military action that describe the opposite). The latter, Vegetius, is known to be full of it, he was a nobody, without any military experience (and those men where the ones who really studied the subject). He wrote a very generalized "This is What We Should be Doing" military manual to influence the emperor and their court. He incorrectly writes about his own time (playing down their abilities), while also overly attributing greatness and ability on them. When it comes to Vegetius, everything he writes needs to be taken with a large grain of salt.

Did the Romans need to march in step during the periods of the Early Kingdom, the Republic, the Principate? No. While they did need order and cohesion there was nothing at all about their system that needed marching in step. Overall, their tactics, as described by the sources through modern historians, not 19th century ones or before), didn't overly change or vary over the course of a millennium. Sure, it evolved, nothing is every stationary. But while cohort of centuries replaced line of maniple as the base tactical unit, with the javelin and sword replacing the earlier spear armed infantry, the overall tactics remained about the same, with obvious differences but with the overall same underlying military principles. The types of battlefields varied from flat plains to the side of steep mountains. The enemy varied in size, ability, fighting styles, and numbers. But the grand tactics and the cultural organizational practices and individual fighting styles remained so similar its hard to really describe different ages.

The overall battle lines didn't need marching in step to preserve integrity, they were already broken up with gaps, (designed to give more freedom of movement), while at other times they might be smaller. But the tactics between those attributed to 3rd-1st century BC armies isn't much different from those of contemporary times (though even then there are obvious anachronistic generalizations, stemming from presentism). All together though, the sources like Polybius, Livy, Caesar, Sallust, they all seem to go along with the idea that the Romans weren't the automatons that many think they were. The line didn't need the intense order coming from marching in step.

What about the subunits, the cohorts, maniples, centures? Did they need the order coming from Marching in Step? Not according to most sources. Polybius specifically mentions the Roman ranks in open intervals (3 feet between each man), with triple distance between ranks (6 feet of space, to give room to throw the pila), he's describing Open Interval. Vegetius mentions less, approx. 6 inches between shield edges as interval within the rank, but still maintaining the 6 foot distance between ranks. What he's describing is likely Close Interval. The current historical concensus, proven very well in recent journals, books, articles, is that the Romans alternated each interval for different tactical situations. Sometimes they might form their centuries in open order when fighting an enemy in hand to hand (per Polybius and Caesar, giving the men more room to fight with swords), while maintaining very close ranks while needing to create a more maneuverable wall of shields against an enemy with heavy missile weapons (archers, slingers, javelineers, mounted or on foot).

During the first Spanish campaign of Caesar's Civil War, Pompey's Spanish veteran legions were dominated in battle by Caesar's legions, one key reason being that the latter army was highly experienced in fighting large pitched battles (and winning quick sieges), while Pompey's men were used to fighting guerrilla war, using unconventional loose tactics, like holding key ground over maintaining strict lines, because that's how they had fought the Spanish guerrillas under Sertorius and other Iberian, Celtiberian tribes revolting. The point of this anecdote from Caesar's Commentaries was that even at the same time period, Romans didn't fight identically. And yet, some of Caesar's legions were detached and send to work for Pompey (and vice versa), and there wasn't an issue of them not having the skill to work with the larger army necessitating a period of re-training (vs integration, which is different).

So what purpose would have marching in step have made? Don't say everything is easier, because under combat conditions, under poor weather and terrain conditions, marching in step is actually harder, almost impossible. KISS is not teaching marching, because its not necessary. Whatever can go wrong, will. And since the Romans didn't need to maintain perfect dress and cover while using their traditional fighting style, they wouldn't have bothered.

More so, had the necessity been there (which it wasn't, but I'll press on), did the Roman legions throughout most of its history even have the time to learn formation drill/marching in step? At a minimum they would have needed many days, a few weeks to learn the basic drill commands of the army, as described (Fall In/Out, Forward March, Backstep March, Advance, Charge/Attack, Pursue (break ranks to harry a routed enemy), Fall Back in Order, Recall, etc. That is primarily attested to well performing armies since the late 3rd century BC. After Marius and Sulla, it became the absolute norm.

But did they ever spend the months needed to become proficient at marching in step over every type of terrain and situation? No, aside from a very few time period in Roman history, legions were too active in campaign or garrison duties, they didn't have the luxury of not patrolling their occupied territory, or starting off a campaign year months late because then they'd miss the opportunity for a full campaign year (which is only 7-9 months out of the year, depending on the climate).

It was not until the Pax Romana period of Augustus, when the Civil Wars ended, with limited border incursions or internal revolts, that there was more free time for garrison legion, who had little combat duties. But what did they do during this free time? We know those full time, permanent legions had free time, what did they do during it?

One, they spent lots of time road building and other large scale construction engineering projects (which they were famous for). Two, some legions are described as very idle, lazy, undisciplined. And some trained too. Individually training, mock battles, conditioning marches, formation drill. That was more than just formation drill, those new recruits that joined, the tiros, were often young men who'd never touched a weapon in their lives, didn't know how to soldier, didn't know how to dig, or do anything the Legions was wanting to use them for, so it took that long to impose discipline on them, to train them in the soldierly skills, only one of which is marching. We are told that new soldiers joined their centuries to mess, but were pulled daily for intense basic training that lasted for 2-4 months before they were rated as actual soldiers. And it was during those hours the tiros were instructed in all the arts, not just formation drill. Not only, it wouldn't be enough to just basic training and the very occasional pass and review in a parade. Close order drill, marching in step, takes hours of daily practice, in a unit that maintains integrity/retention of individuals. Strangers don't march in unison, only a well drilled team does. Those Roman recruits came from all over the legion (they were assigned to open mess sections across the centuries), so they didn't train with their units, but with other tiros. After, any additional training would be done with the mess section (contubernium) of the soldier and his century. What did that consist of?

Interestingly enough, the sources never really emphasize the unit drill part of training besides mentioning large scale mock battles. I can't think of anyone besides Vegetius who emphasizes the formation marching. What they did emphasize was sword drills and sparring/duels, an hour a day for regular soldiers, with triple that for new soldiers. Which suggests that the Roman training was more individual orientated, to train skills and not to perform as a group. If they wanted automatons, they wouldn't train men for many hundreds of hours on proper sword and shield fighting technique. So not only did they not have the need, they didn't have the time or didn't waste their time.

Now let's go into a more abstract part of necessity, which is the need to fulfill tradition. Roman military evolutionary development didn't have them coming from traditional systems that encouraged drill and marching in step. To compare, in the 21st century, the most skilled soldiers in the world are still taught 17th century parade ground drill. But we don't do it because the Romans, we do it because of our Early Modern European ancestors who managed to militarily outclass everyone else in the 18-19th centuries.

But what about the Romans? What was their military tradition consisting of? The Roman military system went from hybrid phalanx, to multiple legions being multiple in lines of differing sorts of infantry maniples organized largely in loose order, with cavalry forces guarding their flanks, with skirmishers leading. Then that changed to a larger cohortal legion structure that saw much larger armies of more standardized units conducting very large pitched battles. The latter is unique because the time the Romans were fighting in their largest and most organized battles, the Romans had not the time or inclination to waste months teaching their centuries to march in step.
The military traditions of the Principate were directly related to the war time practices of the Caesars, G. Julius and Augustus, whose traditions remained (since they commanded the standing army), the Caesars kept it traditional for hundreds of years hence. So it was those traditions that Vegetius is describing when he mentions the ancient Romans, because he lived in the Late Empire. And we know those guys didn't march in step. So Vegetius most likely either misread something, or more likely, he was talking about learning the normal walking pace and the fast one, meaning the army was more focusing on maintaining formation during standard march and a forced march by having better strength, stamina, and mental toughness.

So where the heck did the marching in step come from?

It came from military theorist and generals of the Renaissance and Early Modern period who were just getting reacquainted with Classical history. They didn't know who Vegetius really was, they thought he was an expert, whereas it was just chance that his treatise survived to be reprinted and read all over Europe, whereas the better ones known to exist disappeared. Those fathers of those kingdoms and principalities, city states, (and a few Republics), found the Classical writings to be very appealing to 15-17th century minds, who liked the idea of the Caesars. Those with the ability to read, and the access to a new wave of books (not written about religion for a change) were able to read Vegetius and took what he wrote at face value. Marching in step was how a few key individuals interpreted that line from Vegetius, and it makes sense that it was. Its not a coincidence that the rise in popularity of the clock and watches coincided with the rise in popularity of marching in step and doing everything with synchronicity. They used their own contemporary modern cultural ideals to analyze an ancient text, which is a major historical faux pax. Presentism.

This is the same reason anything written about the Roman military in the 19th century or early 20th century by British or Germans should be taken with some levels of caution, because they wrote full of presentism and ethnocentrism. (For the same reason that anything written in American in the 18th century about Roman politics should be taken with caution too, because they were placing their own concepts on peoples that lived long before, who lived an alien culture)

And its the same reason that to this day we can't just shoehorn modern ideals and concepts of military organization, cohesion, discipline, etc. on a completely alien culture. Its presentism, and its wrong.


The legions . . . dashed forward in wedge-shaped formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same way, and the cavalry with extended spears broke through what was powerful and in the way. The rest took flight, though escape was difficult . . .

The heavily outnumbered Roman army defeats the Boudican hordes in 61.

Despite the tales of epic defeats, the greatest prospect for many Roman soldiers was the chance to go on campaign, especially if that meant a war of conquest, with all the chances of glory and booty that might bring. It was also the most terrifying. This chapter traces some of Rome’s most remarkable warriors in republican and imperial times: artillery experts, those who committed acts of remarkable bravery in the heat of battle or who lived to tell the tale and dine off their heroic acts for the rest of their lives. These were the men who helped define Rome’s greatest military successes and slay the demons of past defeats. They also showed what superb training, discipline and well-maintained morale could achieve.

As Polybius described it, the Roman order of battle was almost impossible to break through. The Roman soldier could fight in it individually or collectively, with the result that a formation of troops could turn to offer a front in any direction. The individual soldier’s confidence was strengthened by the quality of his weapons. The result was, he said, that in battle the Romans were ‘very hard to beat’.

Josephus was staggered by the Roman war machine in action during the Jewish War, fascinated by the way the Romans never laid down their arms yet always thought and planned before they acted. As a huge admirer of the Romans, like Polybius he painted a very compelling and biased picture of an invincible force. He saw Vespasian, the future emperor, set out on campaign to invade Galilee and described how the legions went to war. The auxiliaries attached to the legions were sent out ahead to scout for ambushes and fight off any enemy attacks. Behind them came the legionaries, with a detail of ten men from every century carrying the unit’s equipment. Road engineers followed to take care of levelling the surface, straightening out bends and clearing trees. Behind them came the officers’ baggage train, guarded by Vespasian’s cavalry and his personal escort. The legion’s cavalry was next, followed by any artillery, the officers and their personal bodyguards, the standards and the legionaries’ personal servants and slaves, who brought their masters’ effects. At the back came the mercenaries who had joined that campaign, and finally a rear-guard to protect the rear of the column. The Roman army had reached this arrangement after centuries of experience that had also involved terrible defeats and lessons.

The great achievements were rarely commemorated at the site of battles or campaigns themselves, although to do so was not unique. Actium, unusually, had a monument at the location of the conflict. Trajan erected a memorial at Adamklissi (Tropaeum Traiani, ‘the Trophy of Trajan’) in Dacia in honour of his victory there in 107–8, while fragments of an inscription found in Jarrow church in Northumberland in Britain evidently once belonged to a huge monument built under Hadrian’s rule to commemorate the ‘dispersal [of the barbarians]’ and the construction of his Wall by ‘the Army of the Province’ of Britain. But more often Roman military successes were honoured with triumphal parades and monuments in Rome, the latter usually in the form of an arch, like those of Augustus, Claudius, Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine I, or the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Another stood at the port of Richborough in Britain, serving as a gateway to the province and commemorating the completion of its conquest in c. 85 under Domitian during the governorship of Agricola. There were many more in provincial cities throughout the Empire. Victories and conquest were a matter of Roman national prestige and the emperor’s standing with the mob was of the highest importance. Few ordinary people were ever likely to travel to the sites of former battles, so there was little point in going to great lengths to build monuments there.

No Roman general ever went to war without thinking about his celebrated forebears. In 202 BC, when Publius Cornelius Scipio was still only thirty-four years old, the fate of Rome hung in the balance. The Second Punic War had been dragging on since 218 BC. Scipio had carried a vast army across from Sicily to North Africa in 204 BC and had been slowly wearing the Carthaginians down ever since. The following year, a major defeat had cost the Carthaginians dear when Scipio attacked two of their camps near Utica. It was said that 40,000 men, taken completely by surprise and unarmed, had been killed and 5,000 captured, as well as six elephants. Scipio celebrated the victory by dedicating the captured arms to Vulcan and then ordering them burned.6 Polybius painted the picture of confusion, shouting, fear and raging fire caused by the assault and judged it to be ‘the most spectacular and daring’ of Scipio’s attacks.

The war, which Scipio had been ordered to bring to an end, was at this stage still far from over. During a storm shortly afterwards, a Carthaginian naval attack came close to wiping out his fleet. Sixty transports were seized by the Carthaginians and towed away. A little while later three Carthaginian triremes attacked a quinquereme carrying Roman envoys. Although the envoys were rescued, a large number of Roman troops on the quinquereme were killed. This renewed Roman determination to finish the Carthaginians off. When talks between Scipio and Hannibal broke down, fighting was inevitable. The stakes could not have been higher. Both Rome and Carthage were fighting for survival.

The battle opened with a Carthaginian charge, heavily reliant on Hannibal’s 80 elephants. This turned out to be a mistake. The animals were badly rattled by the noise of the Carthaginian trumpets, panicked and turned back to run into Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry. Some of the frightened elephants reached Roman lines, causing serious casualties before being forced off the battlefield by Roman javelins. Gaius Laelius, Scipio’s cavalry commander, took advantage of the opportunity to charge the Carthaginian cavalry and drive them into a retreat. Only then did the battle descend into close combat as the rival infantry forces advanced towards each other. Thanks to Roman discipline and organization, their infantry formations held and were backed up by their comrades, despite a vicious assault by Hannibal’s mercenaries. But the Carthaginian troops failed to support the mercenaries, who turned on the Carthaginians themselves. Only then did the Carthaginians start to show their mettle, fighting both mercenaries and Romans simultaneously, but the Romans managed to stand fast. Some of the Carthaginians fled from the battle, prevented by Hannibal from taking refuge with his veterans.

Thus far the battle’s confusion and the Carthaginians’ problems had been largely self-inflicted. The Romans had done well but had not yet managed to take control. Scipio was furthermore prevented from attacking because of the sheer number of corpses and the quantity of debris and abandoned weapons in the way. He had the wounded carried off before ordering his men to reorganize themselves into formation by treading their way over the dead bodies. It was effectively a second battle. Once they were in battle order they were able to advance on the Carthaginian infantry. The fighting proceeded inconclusively at first, since both sides were evenly matched the attrition was only broken when the Roman cavalry returned from chasing away the Numidian horse and attacked Hannibal’s men from the rear. Many were killed as they fought, others as they tried to escape. It was a decisive moment. The Carthaginians lost 20,000, it was said, compared to 1,500 Romans. The exact figures were academic, and were unknown anyway. The point was the difference.

Hannibal had exhibited remarkable skill in how he had distributed his forces so as to counter the Romans’ advantage. He had hoped the elephants would disrupt the Roman formation and cause confusion from the outset, planning that the opening assault by mercenary infantry would exhaust the Romans before the main confrontation with his best and most experienced troops, who would have saved their energy. Until then Hannibal had been undefeated. Polybius believed that a Roman victory only came this time because Scipio’s conduct of the fight was better, yet his own description of the battle clearly described how luck had played a large part. There can be no question that it was a brilliant victory, one for which Scipio deservedly took credit. But whether it was really the result of his generalship, or of happenstance in the chaos of battle, is a moot point.

Regardless, the Battle of Zama ended Carthage’s role as a Mediterranean power and confirmed Rome’s primacy in the region. Not only did it earn Scipio immortality as one of the greatest Roman generals of all time but it also enhanced the reputation of the Roman army, as well as putting to bed the shame of Trasimene and Cannae. Scipio offered the Carthaginians remarkably moderate terms, based largely on the payment of reparations and the restriction on the numbers of their armed forces, though these had to be ratified by the Senate.

Of the ordinary men who fought that day none is known to us by name, and nor are the anonymous feats of any individual. Even the celebrated Republican veteran Spurius Ligustinus did not enlist until two years after the battle. In 201 BC, after settling the peace, Scipio took his men home via Sicily for a triumph in which many must have participated, and carrying epic quantities of booty. How he acquired the name Africanus had been lost to history by Livy’s time. Perhaps it was his men who gave it to him, or his friends, or even the mob – but he was the first Roman general to be named after a nation he had conquered, though none who came after, said Livy, were his equal. No wonder anecdotes about his skills, his views and his achievements were recounted for centuries.

There was an amusing postscript to Zama. Some years later, in 192 BC, Scipio Africanus and Hannibal met in the city of Ephesus, on the Ionian coast of Asia (Turkey). Scipio was there as a member of a diplomatic delegation investigating the Seleucid king Antiochus III, Hannibal as the king’s adviser. Allegedly they discussed generalship Scipio asked Hannibal whom he regarded as the greatest general, privately hoping that Hannibal would name Scipio himself. Instead Hannibal gave first place to Alexander the Great and second to Pyrrhus. Scipio was sure Hannibal would name him third at least, but in fact Hannibal then named himself, citing his extraordinary march into Italy and the campaign that had followed. Scipio burst into laughter and asked Hannibal where he would have placed himself had he not been defeated at Zama. Hannibal said he would have been first, managing simultaneously to continue his self-flattery while implying that Scipio was greater than Alexander. The story is almost certainly fictional, but it added another to the range of tales and anecdotes about Scipio retold in later years.


A single soldier’s sharp eyes and quickness of wit could make all the difference at a crucial moment in a campaign. In the war against Jugurtha in North Africa (112–106 BC), the general Gaius Marius was engaged in the siege of a stronghold perched on a rocky outcrop that could only be approached from one direction down a narrow path. The track was far too narrow for siege engines to be moved up along it. On all the other sides there were steep precipices. The siege was starting to look impossible to maintain, not least because the stronghold was well stocked with food and even had a water supply from a spring. Marius began to believe he had made a serious mistake and considered giving up. But one of Marius’ soldiers, an anonymous Ligurian, was out looking for water. He was also picking up snails for food, had climbed higher and higher towards the fortress up one of the precipitous slopes until he found himself near the stronghold. He climbed a large oak tree to get a better view and realized that by working his way through the tree and the rocks he had solved the problem of the Roman assault. He climbed back down, noting the exact path and every obstacle along the way, and went to Marius to tell him he had found a way up.

Instead of dismissing advice from an ordinary soldier Marius realized this might be the break he needed. He sent some of his men to confirm what the Ligurian had said. Based on their reports he was convinced and sent five of his nimblest troops, who were also trumpeters, led by four centurions up the incline again with the Ligurian. The men, who had left their helmets and boots behind so they could see where they were going and be as agile as possible, followed the Ligurian up the hillside through the rocks. To make the climb easier they strapped their swords and spears to their backs, and used straps and staffs to help them up. The Ligurian led the way, sometimes carrying the men’s arms, and tying ropes to tree roots or rocks. When the trumpeters reached the rear of the fortress after their long and exhausting climb they found it undefended. No one inside had expected an attack from that direction.

In the meantime Marius was using long-range artillery to hit the fortress, but the defenders were not in the least concerned. They came out of the fortress accompanied by their women and children, who joined in as they taunted the Romans, convinced they were safe. At that moment the trumpeters at the rear of the fortress started up with their instruments. That was the signal to Marius to intensify his assault. The women and children fled at the sound of the trumpets, believing an attack from behind had taken place, and were soon followed by everyone else. The defence collapsed and Marius was able to press on and take the fortress, all thanks to the Ligurian.

Sometimes soldiers were confronted with terrifying prospects simply for the purpose of gratifying the conceits and ambitions of their commanding officers, generals or emperors. When in 55 BC Julius Caesar began the first of his two invasions of Britain, he was the first Roman to attempt to do so. He had 80 ships built to carry two legions over the Channel from Gaul, and another 18 to bring the cavalry, but when his force arrived off the coast of Britain they were faced with cliffs that could not possibly be scaled. The ships had to be sailed 7 miles (11 km) further on so they could land on a beach.

Well aware of what was happening, the Britons positioned cavalry and charioteers along the coast to prevent the Romans getting ashore. It was already difficult enough for the invaders. Caesar’s troop transports had to be beached in deep water, forcing the infantry to jump down into the water laden with their armour and weapons under a hail of missiles from the Britons. As a result the Romans became frightened and hesitant, not least because they had never experienced anything like it.

Caesar had to order his warships to move into position so his men could attack the Britons with artillery, arrows, and stones hurled from slings. ‘This movement proved of great service to our troops,’ he remembered. The Britons temporarily withdrew, but the Roman troops were still reluctant to risk all by jumping into the sea. Famously, at that moment ‘the aquilifer of Legio X, after praying to heaven to bless the legion by his deed, shouted, “leap down, soldiers, unless you want to betray your eagle to the enemy. It shall be told for certain that I did my duty to my nation and my general”.’ Caesar’s heroic aquilifer then jumped down from the beached transport into the foaming water and charged through the waves with his standard. The prospect of shame was too much for the others on the transport. They followed him, and one by one the men on the other transports followed suit.

Caesar went on to enjoy moderate success that year and the next, but the entire project had hung in the balance that day. His political career could have been destroyed by failure on that beach. The ignominy would have been too much to sustain, especially given the febrile politics of Rome at the time. One soldier had managed to turn the moment around in the nick of time.

At least Caesar’s standard-bearer had acted autonomously. Long before, in 386 BC, Marcus Furius Camillus, a military tribune, was also faced with his own troops holding back. He had physically to grab a signifer by the hand and lead him into the fray to get the others to follow, rather than be humiliated.

Watch the video: Why Were The Roman Legions So Effective?