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Thread: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

  1. #1

    Default The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    In this thread, I will be posting a long essay which I have been working on, which examines the military history and culture of the Roman army in its Republic. For sake of reading ease, I have broken down this essay into three posts, and this first post will contain links to the separate sections, divided by the thematic divisions with this essay. I hope you enjoy it and find it educational.

    Part 1: Virtus
    Part 2: Disciplina
    Part 3: Training & Bibliography

    I would like to put a thesis to you:

    The Roman legionaries were not very well-disciplined soldiers. The Roman legionaries were, in point of fact, often aggressive and individualistic to the point of foolishness and disobedience. The Roman legionaries were impatient, rash, and impulsive soldiers, and their great courage brought with it a high chance of disobedient behaviour which would border on mutinous among modern soldiers. They also didn't train much as formations or groups.

    In this, they were not actually very dissimilar to their neighbours within Mediterranean Antiquity. The Gauls and Germans were renowned for their headstrong courage. Likewise, the military histories of the Greeks and Macedonians are replete with examples of headstrong, willful, disobedient or mutinous behaviour from Hellenic soldiers of every poleis and politeia. Roman aggressiveness and lack of discipline was, in fact, quite in line with everyone else’s behaviour. They did not possess great advantages of discipline, orderliness, or training, and their great aggression was similarly quite normal for the times.

    I realize that to many of you I have just spoken heresy. To many people, the iron discipline and training of the Legions is legendary. The conquest of the vast Roman Empire seems evidence of this, and we have the statements of authors like Vegetius and Josephus to support it. The strength of Rome over the barbarian hordes surrounding her was the discipline and training of her legions.

    Or was it?

    Much has been written before about the Roman legions, their tactics and behaviours in battle, how their performance in combat flowed from the culture and society from which they emerged. Today I would like to go further into the issue of virtus and disciplina, and examine more in depth to what extent the Roman legions in their classical period actually trained, to what extent they were obedient to their officers and commanders, and how much they actually resembled what we in modernity would consider a professional military.

    Again I stress that my intent here is to explore the Roman army’s relationship to Roman society and culture. I do not wish to argue for Roman exceptionalism in aggression or discipline, or lack of discipline. They were quite of a type with all their neighbours in the period. I do, however, want to make the comparison between the Roman army’s behaviours and what a modern professional military would expect of its officers and soldiers. There is a distinct mythos about the discipline and professionalism of the legions, one which I believe is distinctly misleading.

    A close reading of our best sources on the Roman army in its classical period will reveal something very different than what you expect.

    Now, in the interest of intellectual honestly, we must bear in mind that I am not a professional academic, or historian, or employed as an archaeologist. I hold only a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and am not professionally employed in my field. These essays represent essentially a synthesis of the far greater original research done by others in this particular scholarly area, combined with some of my own thoughts and conjectures. In particular, I must cite the tremendous works of J.E. Lendon, Philip Sabin, Adrian Goldsworthy, Alexander Zhmodikov, Gregory Daly, and others. They are the giants upon whose shoulders you can catch a glimpse of the far-off past of pre-modern warfare, and much more can be found in their works than in this small essay.

    In this essay, the main primary source texts we will work from are Polybius and Caesar. Other ancient authors will be used to support statements about Roman culture and society, and when neither Polybius nor Caesar can detail specific military events for us we will use the most reliable other primary texts we can, such as Livy and Plutarch. But why will we focus on Polybius and Caesar? Both were experienced military men, who had seen war, and who give us detailed accounts of the behaviours of the Roman army in their times. They give us the clearest picture of a distinct and important era in the history of the Roman army.

    The period of my focus will be the Roman Army of the mid to late Republic into the early Empire. I refer to this as the classical period of the Roman Army, as it was this army that fought Rome’s greatest wars in the period of her rise, which ensured her dominance over her rivals, and which eventually guaranteed the end of the Republic and determined who would rule the Empire. It was an almost unprecedented prolonged period of military success, against genuinely formidable opposition, and one which later authors like Vegetius would often look back to with nostalgia. I will also argue that the Polybian and Caesarian Roman legions display a high degree of behavioural continuity, and so can be understood to be of a type with one another.

    Polybius and Caesar are also both situated on either side of the reforms of Gaius Marius, and it is my belief that these reforms and their impact on the army are often genuinely misunderstood, as we shall examine.

    Let us begin with the two terms I raised above: Virtus and disciplina.

    It is important to understand that Roman society was an emotionally tempestuous world. J.E. Lendon wrote that the society of ancient Macedon was one of “noble companions and riotous banquets, a society of untamed emotion, of boasting, of drunken murder, a society that recalled that of epic” (Lendon 2005:138), yet you could equally apply the same description to the Roman Republic even down to the days of Caesar and Cicero. There was no central force of law enforcement or peacekeeping in the Roman Republic, it was a society of noble houses, of patrons and clients, of great rivalries, strong emotions, and above all honour and shame.

    Rome had laws, but more often than not they were laws enforced by the community. To bring a grievance with another Roman to court, the Twelve Tables tell us, you as the plaintiff had to personally seize the defendant and bring him before a magistrate and the community in the Forum. This was a world of vendetta. Shame, we are told by Cicero, was the chief weapon of the censor in his moral judgement of Roman society. (Barton 2001:18) The mos maiorum, the ways of the ancestors, were the codes of conduct by which the ancient Roman organized his world. And above all other things, the masculine-dominated world of Rome valued virtus.

    A Roman might be homo, a human being, by simple dint of birth. But to be a Vir, a Man, was an earned status. A Vir possessed virtus, which the Romans saw as the very best quality a man could display. To quote Plautus:

    “Virtus is the very best gift of all; virtus stands before everything, it does, it does! It is what maintains and preserves our liberty, safety, life, and our homes and parents, our country and children. Virtus comprises all things: a man with virtus has every blessing.” (Amphityron)

    So what is Virtus? Virtus is ferrox, it is ferocious. It is often translated to English not as “virtue” but as courage or valour. In Roman literature, often to possess virtus is to go hand in hand with magnus animus, a great spirit. Virtus is also often associated with vires, which means physical virility, strength, vitality, and energy. It is a youthful and energetic quality. Roman virtus is perhaps best compared to the arete of Homeric Greek: Excellence. Achilles was a man of arete to the Greeks, to the Romans he had unsurpassed virtus. Virtus was valour, strength, and energetic, unbounded spirit. It might also be compared to the French words preux or elan in terms of connotations.

    It was a particular quality of Roman culture, as Carlin Barton’s work on Roman Honour finds, to see virtus as requiring first of all a public display and secondly a test of character to be revealed. Further, the Romans believed that a desperate hour and a desperate test were better at revealing virtus than anything else. Polybius himself states that “The Romans, both singly and in groups, are most to be feared when they stand in real danger” (Barton 2001:50). Cicero writes that “The greater the difficulty, the greater the splendour”, and Seneca agrees with him in saying “The greater the torment, the greater the glory” (Barton 2001:47).

    The historian Sallust tells us that the Republic flourished due to the thirst for glory in men’s minds:

    “To such men consequently no labour was unfamiliar, no region too rough or too steep, no armed foeman was terrible; valour was all in all. Nay, their hardest struggle for glory was with one another; each man strove to be the first to strike down the foe, to scale a wall, to be seen of all while doing such a deed. This they considered riches, this fair fame and high nobility. It was praise they coveted, but they were lavish of money; their aim was unbounded renown, but only such riches as could be gained honourably” (Bellum Catilinarium)

    To have virtus, then, was to be seen by all to do great deeds, and deeds in war were most glorious of all. War was the most desperate hour, the most desperate test, with the highest stakes. Militarily, this exhibited itself as one of the most distinct cultural aspects of the Roman army: The Romans revelled in single combats.

    This is often a fact that some people find difficult to grasp, but the Romans wanted to fight as individuals, and they wanted to compete for gloria against others, and they wanted their community to see them as braver, as more virtuous, than others. A glorious performance in single combat before your peers was the fastest way to accelerate your advancement through Roman society. Roman society lived in a state of constant strife and competition for position and status, and advancing yourself and your family by earning a reputation for virtus through great deeds was the most rapid path forward and upward.

    Their panoply as soldiers supports the individual fighting nature of the Romans in war. The scutum is curved backwards onto itself, like a half-barrel in cross section. You can’t overlap it or use it together with your peers in a shield wall, but it is a strong individual defense against blows or missiles. Their weapons were javelins and swords, the weapons of an individual combatant. Polybius even tells us directly that the Romans fight with space enough for each man to act as an individual, that the sword was used for both cut and thrust, and that each man must have space to move (Polybius’s Histories, book 18, Chapter 30). They spread out to such an extent so that each man could individually fight effectively, and compete with his rivals within his peer group, as Sallust tells us, competing for glory with each other. This is also why in the traditional legion, the hastati and the velites were the youngest and the poorest men in the army, in other words the ones most hungry for social advancement, with the most to gain and the least to lose. Their behaviours in battle reflect a society seeking to give an equal opportunity for the earning of glory for each individual, which sees individual virtus as an all-important military factor.

    The Romans kept within their minds a great store of stories, or exempla, about the deeds of their fathers. Like many pre-modern cultures, their oral record of stories was how they taught the younger generations about the wisdom of the past. The Roman stories are full of countless examples of men taking on the challenges of their foes in single combats, duels, monomachia, and triumphing. This could lead a man onto a political career to the consulship itself, as in the cases of Titus Manlius Torquatus and Marcus Valerius Corvus. In the highly competitive and contest-driven honour economy of Roman society, victory in single combat was the most lucrative opportunity for advancement there was, and accordingly the Romans hungered for single combat with a fierce desire. This was the good contest which Roman culture most revelled in and glorified.

    Polybius comments in book 6 of his Histories: “Many Romans have voluntarily engaged in single combat in order to decide a battle,” and indeed in Polybius’s own times we have many accounts of Romans, even of very high rank and status, entering combat to perform heroic individual deeds, and often seeking to engage the leaders and champions of the enemy in said single combats.

    We have already mentioned Torquatus and Corvus from the more distant past of the Republic. Later in history, we are told of Marcus Claudius Marcellus who, according to Plutarch, always accepted any challenge from an enemy for single combat and always killed his challenger. Marcellus also won the spolia opima, the greatest glory a Roman aristocrat could aspire to: As a consul in command of a Roman army at war, he engaged the enemy general, a Gallic king, in single combat, and slew him with his own hand. This was a great feat, for which Marcellus was renowned long after his own lifetime. This same Marcellus was recalled to the standard to command armies against Hannibal during the Second Punic War.

    Of the Scipiones in Polybius’s day, Polybius tells us that Scipio the Elder personally led the Roman cavalry at the Battle of the Ticinus, where he was wounded in the heat of the action. This indicates the active engagement of a Roman consul in the thick of a cavalry fight. We are also told of his son, known to history as Scipio Africanus, who rescued his father in the battle. Quoth Polybius: “Scipio [Africanus] first distinguished himself on the occasion of the cavalry engagement between his father and Hannibal in the neighbourhood of the Po. He was at the time seventeen years of age, this being his first campaign, and his father had placed him in command of a picked troop of horse in order to ensure his safety, but when he caught sight of his father in the battle, surrounded by the enemy and escorted only by two or three horsemen and dangerously wounded, he at first endeavoured to urge those with him to go to the rescue, but when they hung back for a time owing to the large numbers of the enemy round them, he is said with reckless daring to have charged the encircling force alone.” (Polybius’s Histories, Book 10)

    This bold action earned the younger Scipio an unquestionable reputation for virtus, and Polybius also accounts that on future occasions as a general Scipio Africanus did not place himself in harm’s way without sufficient reason. This indicates that a Roman aristocrat had a need to prove his own virtus to their followers, which Africanus did as a young man by rescuing his father in battle. It is implicit in the text that Africanus differed from other Roman generals, who often did place themselves in harm’s way without necessity. Why did they do so? They needed to prove their virtus to have any authority before fellow Romans, who would not respect them as a Vir if they hung back. This need to prove virtus by your deeds could at times be greatly hazardous, as proven by the elder Scipio wounded at the Ticinus, by Aemilius Paullus who died at Cannae, and by the death of Marcellus and his consular colleague during a cavalry skirmish in 209 BC.

    Outside of the ranks of the aristocracy, Polybius’s accounts also tell us of the Roman system of honours and awards given to individual common soldiers for acts of virtus. This system of awards pays special attention to those who individually wound or slay an opponent, or whom are the first to scale a wall, or whom save the lives of a fellow-citizen in battle (Polybius’s Histories, Book 6, Chapter 39). These awards are also noted to be specially given to those who engage in such combats voluntarily during skirmishes and small actions, where the soldier had the choice to engage or not and thus a brave deed is seen as especially worthy of praise. Polybius tells us that the commanders of the Romans gave such awards publicly, before the assembled ranks of the community, and that those who were commended for bravery were likewise honoured at home as in the army.

    Looking down to Caesar’s accounts of his own times and wars, we see a similar ethos of virtus in action throughout the ranks, from Caesar down to the common soldier. J.E. Lendon makes the credible argument in Soldiers & Ghosts that the culture of the Republic had shifted somewhat, the centurions becoming the primary champions of virtus in Caesar’s day, while the patrician aristocracy increasingly refrained from it as they no longer served in Rome’s citizen cavalry, nor was 10 years service required prior to holding office. This may have been the case to an extent, however I would note that military service was still the primary driver of social advancement, and even a man as civilian as Cicero had to serve in war.

    Polybius accounts that in the Roman army of his period, centurions were chosen for their cool heads and steady courage rather than for hot-blooded virtus:

    “They wish the centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as to be natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard-pressed and be ready to die at their posts. “ (Polybius’s Histories, Book 6)

    However, being ready to die at one’s post was also seen as a form of virtus by the Romans, and Carlin Barton’s research found that Roman honour took a peculiar glory in being unbroken in spirit even in defeat. It also may be the case that Polybius, as an aristocrat himself and a personal friend of the Scipiones, focused mostly on the deeds of the cavalry aristocrats in his day, and so did not hear or see fit to record as many accounts of the heroic deeds of centurions and common soldiers as Caesar did. Caesar, being a popularis and having campaigned with the same army for many years and undoubtedly being very familiar and closely bonded to his soldiers, fills his Commentaries with many tales of particularly brave or courageous centurions acting as heroic individuals and competing with one another for gloria. In this, he was also undoubtedly trying to cater to the tastes of the Roman public, who loved such stories of brave men and brave deeds. Caesar may have been propagandizing himself and his legions, but what aspects he chooses to emphasize are themselves significant as to indicating his attitudes and beliefs and those of Roman society and the army.

    Perhaps the most famous of these exempla is the story of the two centurions Vorenus and Pullo. Their camp closely besieged by the Nervii, the two rivals challenged one another to a contest of valour, and charged out into the ranks of the enemy alone, each striving to prove himself braver than the other. As Caesar tells us “When the fight was going on most vigorously before the fortifications, Pullo, one of them, says, "Why do you hesitate, Vorenus? or what [better] opportunity of signalizing your valor do you seek? This very day shall decide our disputes." When he had uttered these words, he proceeds beyond the fortifications, and rushes on that part of the enemy which appeared the thickest. Nor does Vorenus remain within the rampart, but respecting the high opinion of all, follows close after.” (De Bello Gallico, Book 5, Chapter 44).

    Note here the aspect of public performance necessary to proving one’s virtus. Note Vorenus’s sensitivity to his community seeing him as lesser in courage than another man. Additional evidence for the high combat involvement and aggression of centurions are their casualty rates. When Caesar accounts for the losses he takes in battle, he invariably lists many dozens of centurions in most engagements, indicative of their aggressive and prominent role in the thick of combat. Of the seven hundred Romans who fell at Gergovia, in Caesar’s account, forty six were centurions. One in fifteen of Roman dead of Gergovia were centurions, a class of soldier who made up only one in eighty of the legion’s ranks.

    Nor are the Roman aristocracy entirely excused from the needs of proving virtus, for even Caesar himself fought in close combat in his own accounts. At the Battle of the Sabis, against the Nervii in 57 BC, Caesar accounts of himself seizing a shield from one of his soldiers (He even notes that he had left his own shield behind due to his haste to respond to the Gallic surprise attack) and advancing to the front ranks of the combat to encourage and lead his men when they were closely pressed by their Gallic opponents (Goldsworthy 2006:301-302). Similarly, at the height of the Gallic counter-attacks on his siege lines at Alesia in 52 BC, Caesar tells us of how he took command of the Roman cavalry and “hastens to share in the action” (De Ballo Gallico, Book 7, Chapter 87), and how his arrival was known to both his own troops and the enemy by the colour of his robe (Ibid, Chapter 88), indicating the desire to be visible to his soldiers.

    While Lendon may be true when he says that the Roman aristocrats in Caesar’s day concerned themselves mostly with commanding and less with fighting with their own hand (Lendon 2005:218-219), it seems clear to me that the Roman aristocracy still concerned itself greatly with virtus, and from Caesar’s accounts they saw it as a good and admirable thing to enter combat yourself with your own hands. Similarly, stories of Pompey’s campaigns also abound with anecdotes about him fighting in the forefront of battle in the manner of Alexander the Great (Goldsworthy 2006:301). And just as Polybius’s Histories tell us of many Roman consuls who died in action during the war with Hannibal, Caesar’s Civil War is also full of Romans of high rank killed in action, such as Titus Labienus at Munda or Curio at the Bagradas River. The Roman aristocracy may have been on the road to becoming a civilian aristocracy of lawyers, intellectuals, and merchants, but that cultural transformation was not yet complete. The ethos of Virtus still ruled in Caesar’s day.

    So much for Virtus. What of the famed Roman discipline?
    Last edited by EricD; April 03, 2020 at 11:52 PM.

  2. #2

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    You write a lot, but actually don't provide a lot of real facts.

    1. The fact that Roman cammanders sometimes engages in personal combat in no way shows that the legions were not discplined. Sometimes thr leaders have to action to rally the troops. But when you read accounts of Roman battles you don't hear a lot of battles being decided bynpersonal combat. You made statements about Romans being involve in personal combat, so provide some examples from actual battles from sources of the time. Roman leaders were expected to fight, but the only one on one battle that I can recall was the Battle of Ninevah and that was from Byzantine times not Roman.

    2. The armies of the Republic were not the life time professional force they were under the empire. Caesar's legions were still part of the late Republic. Citing examples as you do from Republican times does not prove claims youn madd about imperial times.

    3. Occasional lapses in discipline does not mean the Roman legionnaires were not disciplined as you assert. It just means they were not perfect. However the entire Roman style of fighting requires a disciplined force to make it work.


    The Roman equipment of shield and short sword would only be effective with a disciplined army working in close order coordinated and disciplined. When disciplined declined in the middle ages, and you could no longer count on your soldiers fighting in an organized close order formations, the style of weapons changed to reflect that. The Roman armor and weapon standardization reflect the dsciplined nature of their army, as does the standard layout of their camps.

  3. #3

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Part 2: Disciplina

    The cultural image of military discipline in the modern world is still very indelibly influenced by the images of the musket era. We imagine foot drill and the manual of arms, we can picture clearly British redcoats in thin red lines, or the columns of Napoleon tramping unstoppably across the fields of Europe. Many people, particularly civilians without military experience, often imagine that “disciplined troops” are unthinkingly obedient, carrying out complex maneuvers or actions upon the word of command instantly and without hesitation. The truth is much more nuanced, of course, as any conversation with a veteran or a reading of accounts and sources from the World Wars will tell you. Courage and initiative, those qualities which were encompassed in the old Roman virtus, are still of great importance. Intelligence, observation, and reasoning and decision-making ability are perhaps more important in war now than they have ever been. But obedience, the ability to obey orders swiftly and without hesitation and often when they bring the soldier directly into harm’s way against their will, is still a quality of prime importance.

    How did the Roman army differ from our modern ideas?

    A critical detail in the accounts of the single combats which earned Torquatus and Corvus their fame in the Republic was that before moving forward to engage the enemy champion, they scrupulously sought and received the permission of their commander first (Lendon 2005:177). Indeed, later tales of the life of Torquatus related in Livy tell us that as a commander, Torquatus was forced to execute his own son for fighting a duel when the army had been ordered to refrain (Ibid). Disciplina meant obedience to orders, much as it does for the modern soldier, but rather than obeying orders to put yourself into harm’s way the Roman disciplina meant refraining from the aggressive behaviour which the ethos of virtus called for.

    In the Roman army, virtus was the source of rewards and honour, but disciplina was enforced by harsh penalties and punishments, even death. Some of these punishments, such as decimation, were meted out for cowardice. However, more often men would be punished for too much aggression rather than too little. Accordingly, virtus is seen positively in Roman texts and accounts, but disciplina is a force of stern judgment and restraint. As Lendon puts it, disciplina is a curb and not a spur (Lendon 2005:178). Virtus could lead to great heroism, but it could also lead to rash and foolish behaviour which could be exploited by Rome’s enemies.

    The need for a restraint on the aggression of the legionaries becomes clear from a study of well-attested battles both in the periods of Caesar and Polybius.

    A very clear example is seen at the Battle of Gergovia. Caesar’s intent was to first win a minor victory in the siege before withdrawing to unify his forces with those of Titus Labienus, to avoid a loss of face that would incite more of Gaul to join Vercingetorix (Goldsworthy 2006:400). Thus he aimed to first capture a hill with advantageous position over Gergovia, by means of a limited attack. He directly accounts of the instructions he gave his legates and tribunes: “to restrain their men from advancing too far, through their desire of fighting, or their hope of plunder, he [Caesar] sets before them what disadvantages the unfavorable nature of the ground carries with it; that they could be assisted by dispatch alone: that success depended on a surprise, and not on a battle. After stating these particulars, he gives the signal for action”. (De Bello Gallico, Book 7, Chapter 45)

    Particularly note that the Roman soldier required a signal from their commander to release them for battle, as it suggests the extent to which military discipline in the Roman army was a restraining force rather than a motivating one.

    Despite Caesar’s instructions, the legionaries quickly got out of their officers’ control:

    “Caesar, having accomplished the object which he had in view, ordered the signal to be sounded for a retreat; and the soldiers of the tenth legion, by which he was then accompanied, halted. But the soldiers of the other legions, not hearing the sound of the trumpet, because there was a very large valley between them, were however kept back by the tribunes of the soldiers and the lieutenants, according to Caesar's orders; but being animated by the prospect of speedy victory, and the flight of the enemy, and the favorable battles of former periods, they thought nothing so difficult that their bravery could not accomplish it; nor did they put an end to the pursuit, until they drew nigh to the wall of the town and the gates.” (De Bello Gallico, Book 7, Chapter 47)

    It was this aggressive disobedience, the soldiers believing that their virtus could overcome any obstacle in their path, that led to a loss of seven hundred Romans and the aforementioned great number of centurions in this battle. After this debacle, Caesar accounts that he called an assembly to rebuke his soldiers. Many a modern military member can surely relate to being dressed down by a commander after a poor performance or foolish actions, but Caesar also gives us an interesting detail on this occasion:

    “That as much as he admired the greatness of their courage, since neither the fortifications of the camp, nor the height of the mountain, nor the wall of the town could retard them; in the same degree he censured their licentiousness and arrogance, because they thought that they knew more than their general concerning victory, and the issue of actions: and that he required in his soldiers forbearance and self-command, not less than valor and magnanimity." (De Bello Gallico, Book 7, Chapter 52)

    I would note here, the translator of this text (Drawn from an online edition of Caesar’s Commentaries) uses the term “magnanimity”, which is closely linguistically related to “magnus animus”, when perhaps a term like “great spirit” or “elan” might better convey the original meaning.

    Even on an occasion when virtus had led to a breakdown of discipline and destroyed his officers’ ability to control their soldiers, Caesar cannot bring himself to censure his troops for their courage. Note also that he characterizes the failure as a failure of self-control, not as a failure of obedience. Roman disciplina required one to follow orders, but it was understood as following orders out of self-control, translated here with the wonderfully appropriate word “forbearance”, rather than following orders out of automatic obedience to a military command structure.

    Nor was Gergovia an isolated incident. Lendon’s research found similar incidents of aggressive disobedience, sometimes putting soldiers into disadvantageous positions, at the Battles of Ilerda, Thapsus, and Forum Gallorum (Lendon 2005:221-223).

    Even when the soldiers were obedient, they saw nothing unusual about loudly demanding that their leaders release them for battle, even when faced with an enemy in a far stronger position. During the siege of Avaricum, Vercingetorix offered battle before Caesar’s legions from a strong position, and still Caesar’s legionaries demanded the signal for battle. Rather than simply being able to order his troops back to camp, Caesar had to first console and explain to them that the position was too much to the enemy’s advantage for them to engage that day. (Goldsworthy 2006:393). Evidently a simple order back to camp might not have sufficed.

    An examination of the Roman army’s behaviour during the Polybian period reveals that these at times insubordinate and aggressive behaviours, virtus bridling against the restraint of disciplina, had long antecedents in the Roman army.

    Going right back to the period of the Hannibalic war, Roman soldiers are accounted as being aggressive to the point of mutinous disobedience. Livy, for example, mentions the incident of the first Battle of Herdonia in 212 BC, where Roman soldiers were so eager to engage the forces of Hannibal that they defied any orders or instructions right down to how to order their battle line as they advanced towards the Carthaginians:

    “Fulvius and his legions were in the neighbourhood of Heraclea. When they heard that the enemy were approaching they were almost on the point of dragging up the standards and going into battle without waiting for orders. In fact the one thing that restrained them more than anything else was the confidence they felt of being able to choose their own time for fighting. The following night, when Hannibal became aware that the camp was in a state of tumult and that most of the men were defying their commander and insisting that he should give the signal, and that there was a general cry, "To arms!" he was quite certain that the opportunity was presented of a successful battle. [...] Fulvius did not hesitate, though he was not drawn on so much by any hopes of success on his own part as by the blind impetuosity of his men. The same recklessness which sent them on to the field appeared in the formation of their line. They went forward in a haphazard way and took their places in the ranks just where they chose, and left them again as their caprices or fears dictated. The first legion and the left wing of the allies were drawn up in front and the line was extended far beyond its proper length. The officers called out that it possessed neither strength nor depth and wherever the enemy made their attack they would break through, but the men would not even listen to, much less attend to anything that was for their good.” (Ab Urbe Condita, Book 25, Chapter 21)

    Herdonia was a slaughter due to this Roman impetuosity, and Livy accounts that out of 12,000 men in the Roman army only 2,000 escaped (Ibid.). It is also important to note that Herdonia happened after the battle of Cannae and the other early disasters that befell the Romans in their war against Hannibal. Despite Hannibal having already repeatedly exploited the aggression of Roman soldiers and their commanders to inflict crushing defeats on them, the Romans remained a headstrong and aggressive force, virtus not always willing to bend to disciplina even when it was militarily necessary. Evidently, the Romans at this point did not believe that their own aggression was betraying them in their battles with Hannibal and his Carthaginians.

    Nor was foolish aggression limited to common soldiers. Just as the Roman aristocrats of Caesar’s day were still required to exhibit virtus alongside their men, so too did the aristocratic commanders of the legions in the Polybian period make command errors due to this aggressive ethos and their competitive thirst for glory.

    An example of this can be seen in the Roman consul Tiberius’s behaviour at the Battle of the Trebia. Quoth Polybius:

    “Tiberius, elated and overjoyed by his success [In a preliminary skirmish], was all eagerness to bring on a decisive battle as soon as possible. He was, it is true, at liberty to act as he thought best owing to the illness of Scipio, but wishing to have his colleague's opinion he spoke to him on the subject. Scipio's view of the situation was just the opposite. He considered that their legions would be all the better for a winter's drilling, and that the notoriously fickle Celts would not remain loyal to the Carthaginians if the latter were kept in forced inaction, but would throw them over in their turn. Besides he hoped himself when his wound was healed to be of some real service in their joint action. On all these grounds therefore he advised Tiberius to let matters remain where they were. Tiberius was quite conscious of the truth and cogency of all these reasons, but, urged on by his ambition and with an unreasonable confidence in his fortune, he was eager to deliver the decisive blow himself and did not wish Publius to be able to be present at the battle, or that the Consuls designate should enter upon office before all was over — it being now nearly the time for this.” (Polybius’s Histories, Book 3, Chapter 70)

    Spurred on his thirst for glory and acclaim, the consul Tiberius engaged Hannibal at the Trebia and, predictably, advanced directly into Hannibal’s ambush and encirclement, where his forces were massacred. In the majority of cases in the Second Punic War, Hannibal seems to have found the predictable aggression of the Romans easy to handle with stratagems, particularly focused on the encirclement of the Roman triple line’s sizable flanks.

    And the Romans either seem to have not learned from this, or have been unwilling to restrict the ethos of aggression any further than the established norms of imperium and disciplina already did. Aemillius Paullus (The son of the Paullus who died at Cannae) found this in his own command during the Macedonians in their third war with Rome.

    Similarly to Caesar being forced to explain why they could not attack the Gauls at Avaricum, Paullus was forced to use a degree of guile and trickery to prevent his own men from engaging without orders. When the Macedonian king Perseus offered battle on the flat plain outside of Pydna after the end of a long day’s march, Paullus was forced to delay by making long speeches to his men and allowing the sun’s heat to tire them out until he could order camp to be made (Lendon 2005:199). As with Caesar’s legionaries at Avaricum, evidently a straightforward order would not have been obeyed.

    Pydna is a strange battle, because we do not know clearly why Paullus chose to accept Perseus’s offer of battle on the second day. The field was a flat and level plain, perfect for the employment of the Macedonian phalanx. On the second day, Paullus held long religious sacrifices and councils of war (Bitterly denounced by his own officers), delaying and lingering on the hillier, rough terrain where perhaps he hoped that Perseus would attack him on ground of his own choosing (Lendon 2005:208). Yet for all that, the Roman legions met the phalanxes in headlong collision on the flat plains. Disciplina, for all its force and all the harshness of Roman military punishment, often did not suffice to restrain the Roman army from lunging into frontal assaults on an enemy within their reach.

    If disciplina was understood as forbearance more than obedience, and if it often failed to restrain the Romans from acting foolishly or rashly in battle, then that must raise serious questions about the training of the legions. Imperium, the power of lawful command under the Roman legal system, was meant to be an awe-inspiring force, vested in religious reverence and in a power of life and death within the army’s system of punishments. When a man was enrolled in the legions, he took sacred oaths to obey his officers and their orders (Polybius’s Histories, Book 6, Chapter 21) Yet the accounts are full of imperators being defied or disobeyed by their troops, all throughout the history of the Republic. This brings me to the final aspects of this analysis: Training in the Roman legions, and the impact of Gaius Marius.

  4. #4

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    You write a lot, but actually don't provide a lot of real facts.

    1. The fact that Roman cammanders sometimes engages in personal combat in no way shows that the legions were not discplined. Sometimes thr leaders have to action to rally the troops. But when you read accounts of Roman battles you don't hear a lot of battles being decided bynpersonal combat. You made statements about Romans being involve in personal combat, so provide some examples from actual battles from sources of the time. Roman leaders were expected to fight, but the only one on one battle that I can recall was the Battle of Ninevah and that was from Byzantine times not Roman.

    2. The armies of the Republic were not the life time professional force they were under the empire. Caesar's legions were still part of the late Republic. Citing examples as you do from Republican times does not prove claims youn madd about imperial times.

    3. Occasional lapses in discipline does not mean the Roman legionnaires were not disciplined as you assert. It just means they were not perfect. However the entire Roman style of fighting requires a disciplined force to make it work.


    The Roman equipment of shield and short sword would only be effective with a disciplined army working in close order coordinated and disciplined. When disciplined declined in the middle ages, and you could no longer count on your soldiers fighting in an organized close order formations, the style of weapons changed to reflect that. The Roman armor and weapon standardization reflect the dsciplined nature of their army, as does the standard layout of their camps.
    At the time I am writing this post, I have other parts of this essay awaiting moderator approval to be posted which will give you further historical examples. However I would like to clear up a few misconceptions here.

    Firstly: My interest, as stated in my essay, is the Roman army of the mid to late Republic and into the early Empire. By "Early Empire", I mean the reign of Augustus, whose legions seem to have closely resembled those of his predecessor Julius Caesar. My primary aim here was to explore the Roman armies as described in the texts of Polybius and Caesar, and I believe that the views I have expressed are well supported in the primary texts. I am not speaking about the legions of Trajan or Marcus Aurelius, or the later period armies of Diocletian, Constantine, or Julian. My focus here is the Roman legions as they existed between about 218 BC (Start of the Hannibalic War) and 27 BC (The establishment of Augustus's reign).

    Secondly, I have provided several examples above of Romans glorifying in single combats,and participating in single combats both at the high ranks of the consuls and at the lower ranks of the centurions. However, to further support my claims:

    From Plutarch's Life of Marcellus:

    "Marcellus was efficient and practised in every kind of fighting, but in single combat he surpassed himself, never declining a challenge, and always killing his challengers. In Sicily he saved his brother Otacilius from peril of his life, covering him with his shield and killing those who were setting upon him. Wherefore, although he was still a youth, he received garlands and prizes from his commanders, and since he grew in repute, the people appointed him curule aedile, and the priests, augur.

    [...]

    "In the moment of closing with the enemy he [Marcellus] is said to have vowed that he would consecrate to Jupiter Feretrius the most beautiful suit of armour among them. Meanwhile the king of the Gauls espied him, and judging from his insignia that he was the commander, rode far out in front of the rest and confronted him, shouting challenges and brandishing his spear. His stature exceeded that of the other Gauls, and he was conspicuous for a suit of armour which was set off with gold and silver and bright colours and all sorts of broideries; it gleamed like lightning. Accordingly, as Marcellus surveyed the ranks of the enemy, this seemed to him to be the most beautiful armour, and he concluded that it was this which he had vowed to the god. He therefore rushed upon the man, and by a thrust of his spear which pierced his adversary's breastplate, and by the impact of his horse in full career, threw him, still living, upon the ground, where, with a second and third blow, he promptly killed him. Then leaping from his horse and laying his hands upon the armour of the dead, he looked towards heaven and said: "O Jupiter Feretrius, who beholdest the great deeds and exploits of generals and commanders in wars and fightings, I call thee to witness that I have overpowered and slain this man with my own hand, being the third Roman ruler and general so to slay a ruler and king, and that I dedicate to thee the first and most beautiful of the spoils. Do thou therefore grant us a like fortune as we prosecute the rest of the war."
    From Polybius's Histories, Book 2, Chapter 27, accounting of the 2nd Battle of Telamon:

    "Just at this time, Gaius Atilius, the other Consul, had reached Pisa from Sardinia with his legions and was on his way to Rome, marching in the opposite direction to the enemy. When the Celts were near Telamon in Etruria, their advanced foragers encountered the advance guard of Gaius and were made prisoners. On being examined by the Consul they narrated all that had recently occurred and told him of the presence of the two armies, stating that the Gauls were quite near and Lucius behind them. The news surprised him but at the same time made him very hopeful, as he thought he had caught the Gauls on the march between the two armies. He ordered his Tribunes to put the legions in fighting order and to advance thus at marching pace in so far as the nature of the ground allowed the attack in line. He himself had happily noticed a hill situated above the road by which the Celts must pass, and taking his cavalry with him, advanced at full speed, being anxious to occupy the crest of the hill before their arrival and be the first to begin the battle, feeling certain that thus he would get the largest share of credit for the result.

    [...]

    At first the battle was confined to the hill, all the armies gazing on it, so great were the numbers of cavalry from each host combating there pell-mell. In this action Gaius the Consul fell in the mellay fighting with desperate courage, and his head was brought to the Celtic kings; but the Roman cavalry, after a stubborn struggle, at length overmastered the enemy and gained possession of the hill."

    Then there is the example of Marcus Servilius C. f. P. n. Pulex Geminus, whose victories in twenty different monomachies were celebrated by Roman coins minted long after his death. After the Third Macedonian War, there was a controversy in Rome in which the Tribune Galba was trying to convince the People to vote against a triumph for Paullus after his victory at Pydna. This is how Servilius harangued the people to convince them otherwise:

    "Listen to the decree of the senate, rather than to the romancing of Servius Galba. Listen to this that I am saying, rather than to him. He has learnt nothing but speech-making, and that only to insult and calumniate. I have fought three-and-twenty times in answer to challenges; from all whom I encountered I carried off the spoils. My body is covered with honourable scars, every one received in front." It is said that he then stripped himself and explained in what war each had been received.

    While making this display he uncovered what ought to be concealed, and a swelling in the groin evoked laughter amongst those nearest to him. He then continued: "This which you are laughing at I got from sitting on horseback night and day, and I am no more ashamed of this than of my other scars; it has never hindered me from serving the commonwealth faithfully, either at home or on the field of battle. As an old soldier I have often shown this body of mine, hacked with the sword, to the young ones. Let Galba strip and show his smooth skin with not a scar upon it."
    Livy 45:39

    The Romans greatly respected a brave man's scars. Needless to say, Galba was thoroughly shamed and the People rebuked, Paullus would receive his Triumph. This honouring of scars, of the physical evidence of fighting in the forefront of battle, goes right throughout the Republic.

    From Plutarch's Life of Marius, after Marius has been elected Consul to prosecute the war with Jugurtha:

    "He was triumphantly elected, and at once began to levy troops. Contrary to law and custom he enlisted many a poor and insignificant man, although former commanders had not accepted such persons, but bestowed arms, just as they would any other honour, only on those whose property assessment made them worthy to receive these, each soldier being supposed to put his substance in pledge to the state. It was not this, however, that brought most odium upon Marius, but the boldly insolent and arrogant speeches with which he vexed the nobles, crying out that he had carried off the consulship as spoil from the effeminacy of the rich and well-born, and that he had wounds upon his own person with which to vaunt himself before the people, not monuments of the dead nor likenesses of other men
    And if these examples of Romans glorying in the victors of single combats are not enough for you, the best tactical descriptions we have of the Roman army in this period from Polybius and Caesar also indicate that the Romans fought in loose order, as individuals:

    Polybius's Histories, Book 18, Chapter 30


    Now in the case of the Romans also each soldier with his arms occupies a space of three feet in breadth, but as in their mode of fighting each man must move separately, as he has to cover his person with his long shield, turning to meet each expected blow, and as he uses his sword both for cutting and thrusting it is obvious that a looser order is required, and each man must be at a distance of at least three feet from the man next him in the same rank and those in front of and behind him, if they are to be of proper use.
    And from Caesar's Battle of the Sabis, against the Nervii:

    Caesar proceeded, after encouraging the tenth legion, to the right wing; where he perceived that his men were hard pressed, and that in consequence of the standards of the twelfth legion being collected together in one place, the crowded soldiers were a hinderance to themselves in the fight; that all the centurions of the fourth cohort were slain, and the standard-bearer killed, the standard itself lost, almost all the centurions of the other cohorts either wounded or slain, and among them the chief centurion of the legion P. Sextius Baculus, a very valiant man, who was so exhausted by many and severe wounds, that he was already unable to support himself; he likewise perceived that the rest were slackening their efforts, and that some, deserted by those in the rear, were retiring from the battle and avoiding the weapons; that the enemy [on the other hand] though advancing from the lower ground, were not relaxing in front, and were [at the same time] pressing hard on both flanks; he also perceived that the affair was at a crisis, and that there was not any reserve which could be brought up, having therefore snatched a shield from one of the soldiers in the rear (for he himself had come without a shield), he advanced to the front of the line, and addressing the centurions by name, and encouraging the rest of the soldiers, he ordered them to carry forward the standards, and extend the companies, that they might the more easily use their swords.
    De Bello Gallico, Book 2, Chapter 25

    Finally, I would like to ask you a question:

    If the Roman army is one which fights in close order formation, coordinated, organized, and disciplined as you say, then why did they use a sword and a shield? Why not a spear or a pike, which would have worked better in every way for a tightly arrayed close order formation of heavy infantry? If the Roman army fought in tight formation at close quarters, then why use a sword?

  5. #5
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    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

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  6. #6

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Part 3: Training

    In the incident of the consuls’ command dispute before the Battle of the Trebia, Scipio the Elder is accounted as wishing to avoid battle so they could use the winter to drill and train their men further (Polybius, Book 3, Chapter 70), and Hannibal is said to have wished to bring on a battle more quickly before the legions could train their newly levied men further (Ibid.) So, it is evident that drilling and training were a typical part of military life in that period, and that responsible commanders would wish to train their men.

    It is important to note that when Polybius describes the Roman army and its ways for us, he focuses greatly on how they march from place to place and how they fortify their encampment each night. He makes no mention of foot drill or battle maneuvers or even any kind of training programs as we would identify it. In contrast, Book 6 of the Histories exhaustively describes the fortified encampment of the legions, their organization of watches and guards for the night, the nature of their punishments and rewards, how they organize for the day’s march, and how they move from line of march into order of battle. Polybius was a military man himself, who had served in the armies of the Achaean League as a young man, and who spent extensive time accompanying Roman armies on campaign. His account of the Roman army reveals an experienced campaigner’s eye for important, practical details.

    These are all highly useful military skills, requiring education and knowledge on the part of the soldiers. However, soldiers in a modern military undergo long periods of training to gain the education and abilities for the specifics of their trade, and this is something which Polybius’s accounts lack in a noteworthy fashion. There is no long period of indoctrination and training mentioned in Polybius’s accounts of the Roman army and its ways. He does not mention Roman soldiers being trained to marshal in their ranks and files for battle, or to carry out evolutions as a formed body, or to respond to words of command, all aspects of training which would have been required for the Hellenistic phalanxes with their close order drill, and which were highly required for early modern soldiers in the era of the musket. Even in contemporary militaries, formation drill is used to inculcate discipline and obedience into new soldiers.

    To an extent, this makes sense. The Roman legionary fought with javelin and sword, in loose order. These weapons require space for an individual to wield, not close order drill. Spread out with space for each man to move meant that each individual in the maniple or cohort could move more freely to ward off a blow or attack an opponent, without risking jostling or unbalancing his comrades. Undisciplined movement in a phalanx, a pike square, or in a musket line could throw the entire formation into disarray, it posed little such risk to the Roman maniple or cohort in its loose order.

    So if the Roman legionary was not being trained in close order formation movement (And the accompanying necessity of obedience to command), what did their training entail?

    First of all, one should note the age-based divisions of the Polybian manipular legion helps reduce the training time requirements of the legion in the first place. In Polybius’s period, all Roman citizens who met the wealth requirements for military service were required to serve at least 16 years in the infantry or 10 in the cavalry (Polybius, Book 6, Chapter 19). Similarly, military tribunes were selected on the basis of their prior experience (Ibid). With the Roman Republic more or less constantly at war with her neighbours throughout her history, the available knowledge of war and its ways within the Roman recruiting base would have been extensive. The manipular legion makes use of this by its recruiting system, as each legion receives a set proportion of both officers and troops with prior campaigns under their belt. Taking the heavy infantry of the legion as an example: Principes and triarii were both older, more experienced than the hastati. This would mean that fully 2/3rds of a legion’s establishment of infantry would already have campaigned before, easing the requirement for extensive training for the legion and enabling the younger men to have been tutored by their seniors.

    Secondly, the extensive and highly specific nature of the Roman fortified encampment, and the repetition with which the Romans constructed this camp each day on campaign, indicates that the construction of that camp was likely a prominent part of training for the troops. Similarly, new troops would have needed to have been educated on the specifics of night watches and picquets, and on the order of march, of how to array for battle in the triple line, and how to move smoothly and swiftly from order of march to order of battle. We do not know the specifics for how this was organized, but I would theorize that “on the job” training with the assistance of experienced older soldiers would have been the main component of such education.

    Polybius does describe a training scheme put into place by Scipio Africanus while his troops were in winter quarters in his Iberian campaign, after the fall of Carthago Nova. Quoth:

    “He [Scipio] himself remaining for some time in New Carthage constantly exercised his navy and instructed the tribunes to train the land forces in the following manner. He ordered the soldiers on the first day to go at the double for thirty stades in their armour. On the second day they were all to polish up, repair, and examine their arms in full view, and the third day to rest and remain idle. On the following day they were to practise, some of them sword-fighting with wooden swords covered with leather and with a button on the point, while others practised casting with javelins also having a button at the point. On the fifth day they were to begin the same course of exercise again.” (Polybius’s Histories, Book 10, Chapter 20)

    Given that Polybius takes the time to explicitly describe this training program, it may not have been standard or usual in the Roman army at the time but rather an indication of Scipio Africanus’s great quality as a commander. However, note the attention paid in this training to the fighting qualities of the individual soldier. They practice their individual martial arts, they improve their individual endurance by running in armour, they repair and tend to their individual weapons. Maneuvers or drilling of formations are not mentioned, although the running in armour may have been in a formed body. Individual skill is again seen here as highly important. It may have been that Scipio the Elder wished for a similar training period to get his own soldiers a period of practice in their own martial arts prior to seeking battle.

    This emphasis on martial skill (As in, the skill with weapons of the individual soldiers) might be seen as analogous to training in basic soldier skills that takes place throughout a modern professional soldier’s time in the army. It could be seen as an ancient counterpart to time on the rifle range, individual marksmanship, or weapons handling and stoppage drills. What seems to be absent is exercising of the larger groups of Scipio’s army. While modern troops will drill and exercise in sections, platoons, companies, and larger groupings, in order to inculcate troops with smooth and effective battle drills to meet the challenges of the modern battlefield, there are no accounts of how Scipio’s men practiced in centuries, maniples, or legions. They certainly could plausibly have done so, but the text is silent on when, how, or to what extent. Given that Polybius is known to have been personally familiar with many leading military men in Rome, and to have accompanied Roman armies on campaign, and his array of other relevant comments on the military qualities of Roman armies, this is a very notable omission.

    “Okay, that’s for the manipular legion, but did not Gaius Marius improve the training of the legions? Did he not make them into a professional army?”

    Now that is an interesting question to consider. My comparison of the accounts of battles and wars in the periods of Polybius and Caesar shows extensive continuity throughout this period, on both sides of the Marian reforms.

    Now certainly there are changes in the army due to Marius’s reforms. The triarii disappear, and the legionary infantry becomes a “standard” type armed with scutum, pila, and gladius. So too go the velites. The aristocratic citizen cavalry, the equites, also disappear, both they and the velites replaced by foreign mercenaries and auxiliaries of various kinds. The army becomes organized primarily on cohorts rather than maniples. Marius recruits from the urban, landless poor, a thing never before done in Rome. The army gradually becomes loyal primarily to its commander, who recruits and pays them, rather than the Senate and People. There are substantial organizational, social, and political changes that come along with the Marian reforms.

    What I do not see, however, is substantial behavioural change on the part of the humans who made up the Roman army. Legions may have been simplified to a single type of troops, but they still deploy in the traditional three lines. The triarii are gone, but the legionaries still fight with pilum and gladius in much the same manner as their predecessors did. Their order is still loose, allowing them to fight individually. They still vie amongst themselves for glory by the public display of individual aggression and courage. That same heroic virtus still resisted the disciplina which their officers and commanders tried to restrain them with, often leading to disobedience. They still face harsh penalties for cowardice. They still scrupulously and carefully entrench their camp at the end of a day’s march. Caesar may have been a great general, but his armies do not evidence any maneuvers or battle behaviours more complex or different than what the armies of Paullus or Scipio are accounted as performing in combat.

    A legionary post-Marius may have been a “professional” mercenary who spent 20 years under the colours, but as said before the civilian militia of the earlier Republic also kept a large store of military experience in its body of citizens by means of her constant wars and by recalling experienced campaigners to the legions regularly. The theoretical 20 year service of a post-Marian legionary is not so very different from the 16 years of service before the age of 46 which Polybius mentions. Theoretically, keeping the legionaries as a standing force could allow for them to keep their soldiering skills in practice in times of peace, but how often was Rome ever at peace? Until some time into the Imperial period, the Romans seem to have always been at war with somebody, somewhere.

    So if there are all these elements of continuity, on what basis could we say that Marius changed or improved the training of the legions? This fact is often repeated as a truism, that Marius made the legions more professional and better trained, yet I do not believe it holds up to a close examination of the primary texts.

    Furthermore, the economics of war point against extensive training periods for the Roman armies either pre or post-Marius. The manipular legion was a citizen’s militia raised from the landholders. These men had farms and estates to tend to. The impatience of their aggressive behaviour have been in part motivated by a desire to accomplish the goal of the campaign swiftly so that they could return to their farms and their families. An agricultural and rural-centric society cannot afford, in food security terms, to have its farmers away from their fields for too long, and the long campaigns of the Punic Wars caused great economic damage to the Roman people (Goldsworthy 2006:30). The manipular legions always seem to have marched straight off towards battle as soon as they were enrolled and organized, relying on the extensive “institutional” knowledge of a warlike people to know their business.

    Nor does Marius’s creation of paid mercenary legions greatly change this dynamic, although at first guess you might think that it would. The warlords of the late Republic like Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar, were raising their legions at their own expense out of pocket (Goldsworthy 2006:110), and often wages and rewards to the men would be provided from the commander’s pocket as well. Such forces were enormously expensive, putting men like Caesar into huge debts. They had to start campaigning swiftly, where the warlord could start paying them from the loot of Rome’s enemies, and gaining land which could be promised to the men to help ensure their loyalty to the commander. Like a shark, if the legions stopped moving they would die.

    And what, finally, do the primary sources (Plutarch for the life of Marius) tell us about the training of Marius’s army as he moved to face the invasion of the Cimbri?

    “Setting out on the expedition, he laboured to perfect his army as it went along, practising the men in all kinds of running and in long marches, and compelling them to carry their own baggage and to prepare their own food.” (Plutarch, Life of Marius, Chapter 13)

    Route marches, physical exercise, carrying burdens. Nothing in Plutarch’s account of the life of Marius suggests that his training regimen was a very revolutionary or different thing. Very likely it was the same kind of training which responsible Roman generals had exercised their troops in throughout the history of the Roman army, although it was perhaps more necessary for the army of Marius, drawn from the landless poor who may have lacked prior campaigning experience. Plutarch goes on:

    “And now, as it would seem, a great piece of good fortune befell Marius. For the Barbarians had a reflux, as it were, in their course, and streamed first into Spain. This gave Marius time to exercise the bodies of his men, to raise their spirits to a sturdier courage, and, what was the most important of all, to let them find out what sort of a man he was. For his sternness in the exercise of authority and his inflexibility in the infliction of punishment appeared to them, when they became accustomed to obedience and good behaviour, salutary as well as just, and they regarded the fierceness of his temper, the harshness of his voice, and that ferocity of his countenance which gradually became familiar, as fearful to their enemies rather than to themselves.” (Ibid, Chapter 14)

    There seems to be nothing in the accounts of training which Marius gave to his legions which appears substantially different or revolutionary from how Scipio is described as training his own forces, or what was likely common throughout a young man’s first campaign in the armies of the Republic.

    On the whole, however, I do not see substantial evidence that Marius’s reforms in the organizational, social, and political aspects of the Roman army were reflected in its training or its behaviours on campaign or in battle. On the whole, the Roman army appears to have remained more the same than different before and after the Marian reforms. A different organization may have been imposed, the social classes involved at war may have changed or shifted roles in the way that Lendon’s research found, the political role of the Legions in relation to the Senate and People was different, but the ethos of the army appears to have remained the same. Their weapons, tactics, and training appear substantially the same, the behaviour in battle and on campaign stayed more the same than different. Individual Virtus was still the path to glory and advancement, disciplina still struggling mightily to restrain the rashness that the ethos of virtus often led to in excess.

    This is, I realize, a somewhat controversial view to be advancing. It is so often repeated as a truism that Marius professionalized and improved the legions. It is likewise repeated as a truism that the Legions were a highly trained and disciplined force, capable of all kinds of battle maneuvers, and instantly obedient to command. Their foolhardy aggression, mutinous behaviour, and emphasis on individual prowess and brave deeds make them appear far more closely akin to the “barbarian” warbands they often fought than is popularly imagined, or to the close order drill and elaborate arrays of the Greek and Macedonian armies.

    There is little, I feel, in the behaviours and ethos of the Roman legions which resembles what a modern person would consider professional military behaviour. In a modern, professional, volunteer army such as is established in Canada, the UK, or the United States, courage and initiative is still of great importance. So too is obedience and loyalty, observation and intelligent decision-making, and a great deal of specialized training necessary to be competent in the complexities of modern war. It has often been argued before, by intellectuals, academics, and the common public alike, that the Roman legions were in some sense an ancient predecessor to the ideas of military excellence which have emerged in the modern period. This is a mistaken view I feel.

    The Roman army appears to have trained some, and the texts indicate that it trained mostly to improve the endurance and martial skill of its individual soldiers. Practical aspects of campaigning, such as the fortification of the castra, also must have been a focus of military education for new soldiers throughout the Republic’s history. Long service terms, and pre-Marius the organization of the legion into age and experience brackets, probably ensured that the Republic had a large store of military experience among its citizens at all times. Roman armies, thus, likely did not march off to war as green civilians, like Kitchener’s volunteers did before the Battle of the Somme. The legion had a mix of grizzled old campaigners and untested men both, allowing for tutelage of new troops “on the march” as they campaigned. The only time an inculcation of obedience is mentioned as an aspect of training is in Plutarch’s account of the life of Marius, where it is given as an example of Marius’s unusual harshness as a commander, and the aggressive disobedience of the legions points against obedience being an area of focus in training.

    The battle behaviours of the Romans trended towards simplicity. Both Polybius and Caesar account for them fighting in open, loosely ordered formations, casting javelins and charging with swords, and of valuing heroic individual acts of bravery. Despite the apparent complexity of the triple line order, in most cases the Romans appear to have favoured direct frontal attack, where virtus could contend directly with the courage of their enemies. Fighting in loose order with swords and javelins seems to have required less drilling as a group, and more focus on individual martial skill as well as strength and endurance, as indicated by Polybius’s accounts of Scipio’s training of his troops, and by Caesar’s many accounts of the brave deeds of centurions. Only occasionally, and usually under the leadership of exceptional commanders like Scipio and Caesar leading very experienced troops, do the Roman legions engage in complex battle maneuvers. Usually, they simply smash forward into whatever is in their way, and usually that sufficed.

    I would like to conclude this analysis with returning to the words of Caesar.

    When Caesar dressed down his soldiers after the failure at Gergovia, his accounts mentioned before tell us that he was careful to not reproach his men for courage, indeed he said he could not help but admire their unstoppable virtus. There is a sense in Caesar’s texts, as Lendon puts it, that he considers the virtus of his soldiers to be a factor of great military importance, that the hard-fought and often contestable balance between virtus and disciplina was the source of Roman military success, and that for all that his men could sometimes disobey him, he would prefer a brave army that is sometimes disobedient, rather than a more obedient and less brave force (Lendon 2005:221)

    Caesar states this most plainly in his account of the battle of Pharsalus, in his commentary on the Civil War. This passage is extraordinary in that he directly comments upon the factors he views as important for military success, and comments upon Pompey’s command mistakes (as Caesar sees them) at Pharsalus:

    “There was so much space left between the two lines as sufficed for the onset of the hostile armies, but Pompey had ordered his soldiers to await Caesar's attack and not to advance from their position, or suffer their line to be put into disorder. He is said to have done this by the advice of Gaius Triarius, that the impetuosity of the charge of Caesar's soldiers might be checked, and their line broken, and that Pompey's troops remaining in their ranks, might attack them while in disorder; and he thought that the javelins would fall with less force if the soldiers were kept in their ground, than if they met them in their course. At the same time he trusted that Caesar's soldiers, after running over double the usual ground, would become weary and exhausted by the fatigue.

    But to me Pompey seems to have acted without sufficient reason: for there is a certain impetuosity of spirit and an alacrity implanted by nature in the hearts of all men, which is inflamed by a desire to meet the foe. A general should endeavor not to repress this, but he must increase it. Nor was it a vain institution of our ancestors that the trumpets should sound on all sides and a general shout be raised, by which they imagined that the enemy would be struck with terror and their own army inspired with courage.” (de Bello Civili, Book 3, Chapter 92)

    This impetuousity of spirit could mean disobedience or mutinous actions. But Caesar believed that a general should not repress this spirit, but must increase it. Courage, the Romans believed, was what won the day. Courage had to be tempered by self-restraint, and at times by obedience to officers and those who held imperium, but it was still courage which decided battles and wars for the Romans.

    Bibliography:

    Primary Texts:


    Polybius, Histories
    Caesar, Commentaries
    De Bello Gallico
    De Bello Civili
    Plutarch, Life of Marius
    Sallust, Bellum Catilinarium
    Plautus, Amphityron
    Livy, Ab Urbe Condita

    Secondary Texts

    J.E. Lendon, Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity, Yale University Press, 2005
    Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar: The Life of a Colossus, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2006
    Carlin A. Barton, Roman Honour: The Fire in the Bones, University of California Press, 2001
    Philip Sabin et al, The Cambridge History of Greek & Roman Warfare, Cambridge University Press, 2008
    Gregory Daly, Cannae: The Experience of Battle in the Second Punic War, Routledge, 2002

  7. #7

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    All of your examples seem to come from Republican times. I didn't see any example of combat supoorting your claims from the time of Augustus.

    Second your examples really don't prove what you are saying.

    In answer to the question about Roman shields and swords, Roman swords allowed getting in close to use. If you are too close, inside the tip of the spear length, you can't effectively attack your opponent. Roman shields allowed getting close , since the large Roman shield would block the spear thrust, neutralizing them, and enabling the Romans to get close enough to hack and stab with their gladius, which was effective for both. It would require a close and disciplined formation to get close enough to make their short swords effective.


    There are times when the became too tightly packed and unable to use their weapons effectively, which is the examples that were given. A shield wall where shields are locked together is an effective defensive position, but is not as effective on offense. It is hard to maintain the shields locking when advancing on rough ground, and it is not very flexible. Staying on the defense means you lose the initiative in combat and meant you forces can be worn down, as what happened to the Saxons at Hastings.

    The Romans defeated the phalanx because the Roman legions were more flexible. It is harder to make a phalanx to turn and deal with threats coming from the side. But shield walls and phalanx are relatively easy formations to implement. Even troops with little training can implement them.

  8. #8

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    All of your examples seem to come from Republican times. I didn't see any example of combat supoorting your claims from the time of Augustus.

    Second your examples really don't prove what you are saying.

    In answer to the question about Roman shields and swords, Roman swords allowed getting in close to use. If you are too close, inside the tip of the spear length, you can't effectively attack your opponent. Roman shields allowed getting close , since the large Roman shield would block the spear thrust, neutralizing them, and enabling the Romans to get close enough to hack and stab with their gladius, which was effective for both. It would require a close and disciplined formation to get close enough to make their short swords effective.


    There are times when the became too tightly packed and unable to use their weapons effectively, which is the examples that were given. A shield wall where shields are locked together is an effective defensive position, but is not as effective on offense. It is hard to maintain the shields locking when advancing on rough ground, and it is not very flexible. Staying on the defense means you lose the initiative in combat and meant you forces can be worn down, as what happened to the Saxons at Hastings.

    The Romans defeated the phalanx because the Roman legions were more flexible. It is harder to make a phalanx to turn and deal with threats coming from the side. But shield walls and phalanx are relatively easy formations to implement. Even troops with little training can implement them.

    What I am saying, my thesis, is this: The Roman legionary was mostly an individual fighter in combat. In fact, I would say he was mostly a javelineer, a heavy skirmisher more than what you might call a heavy infantryman in the manner of the Greek or Macedonian phalangites. I believe the pilum was the weapon he used most of the time he spent in combat (In fact, I think javelins, stones, and missiles were the predominant weapons in all ancient warfare), and this view is supported in the academic world by the works of Philip Sabin, Alexander Zhmodikov, and J.E. Lendon. If you have a JSTOR account, I would greatly recommend the following articles: Roman Republican Heavy Infantrymen in Battle, by Zhmodikov, and The Face of Roman Battle, by Sabin.

    Why do I say he was mostly an individual fighter?

    Firstly, as aforementioned, the panoply of the Roman legionary is very clearly an individual fighter's arms. You mention that locking shields together into a wall is a very effective collective defense. Indeed it evidently is, as it recurs in history many times in many different cultures. The Roman scutum can't lock together. It can't overlap with your comrades to either side. It has a strong curve, as I said before like a half-barrel in cross section, which prevents it from overlapping and locking together like a Greek aspis or a Germanic round shield. What it does very well, actually, is protect an individual fighter. It's curved to surround your body from multiple angles. It deflects missiles and blows very well. The Roman legionary fights with javelins and with swords. These are an individual fighter's weapons. All infantry in Antiquity which fought as a corporate, tight, massed formation adopted spears or pikes. Indeed, in Late Antiquity when the Romans start to actually fight shoulder to shoulder, using lapped shields, as they did at the Battle of Strasbourg in 357 AD, the Roman infantry was armed with spears, not javelins and swords. You need space to be able to throw a javelin, you need space to be able to wield a sword. This is what Polybius indicates in his account of Roman fighting, which I will quote again:

    "In their mode of fighting each man must move separately, as he has to cover his person with his long shield, turning to meet each expected blow, and as he uses his sword both for cutting and thrusting it is obvious that a looser order is required,"
    He further states

    The Roman front ranks are not supported by the rear ranks, either by way of adding weight to their charge, or vigour to the use of their swords
    All of which can be found in Histories, Book 18, Chapter 30.

    It's not as if the Romans were ignorant of phalanxes or close order formations. They fought against them often. Everyone else in Antiquity who fought in close order formation used spears and pikes to do so. When close order drilled infantry reappears in the Late Middle Ages, what do they use? Spears and pikes. The Romans felt the fury of the Macedonian phalanx in several battles against Pyrrhus early in their history. Some theorize they may have used a hoplite phalanx at an earlier point. Yet they chose to not use a dense spear or pike array, they chose instead to adopt looser formations, fighting primarily with javelins and using their swords at times in conjunction. Why was this? What made the pila and gladius so special?

    I do not believe it was because javelin and sword was better for close order formations. I don't believe the Romans were even training in close order foot drill or formation evolutions. The descriptions of their training in this period seem to have focused mostly on strength and endurance, and individual fighting skill. And the maniple or the cohort does not require close order drill to fight, because as Polybius as plainly stated and as the Roman arms clearly indicate: The Romans need space to fight. When the Romans pack into a narrow frontage and a dense formation, as at Cannae, they fight poorly and they lose.

    I believe, firstly, that the Romans wanted to fight as individuals so that their brave deeds could be seen by their community. They lived in a society of intense competition for status, prestige, and social advancement. Gloria for you and your family is a missed opportunity for another. Their greatest competition was with each other. They believed deeply in single combats as a test of character, as a means of revealing your magnus animus to the people around you. Single combat was the single most desirable way to socially advance yourself, to improve your status and position within your community and among your peers.

    I think, secondly, that the pila and gladius worked as a combination of "fire" (for lack of a better term) and shock (By which I mean, inflicting fear on the enemy). It is important to remember that men on the battlefield are not Total War units and do not, generally speaking, rush into close combat heedlessly. The human instinct for self-preservation is a strong one, and humans almost always prefer to fight from safety (Which usually means fighting from a distance). David Grossman's battlefield psychology work On Killing found that soldiers found inflicting violence on others easier when they could have a physical and psychological distance between themselves and their opponent. Although the Romans gloried in monomachia, they still would have been as cautious as anyone else on the battlefield. They want scars, not death. They want to come away victors, and enjoy the spoils, and they may be willing to die in the attempt but neither would they be suicidal.

    Sabin's theory, which I support, is that when two infantry forces in Antiquity came close to one another, a narrow no man's land would form, a few yards wide, just out of each side's easy striking reach with hand weapons, as neither side quite has the will to charge into the other side's striking range and face almost certain death or injury for the front-fighters. In this period, there may have been some cautious fencing at spear-length, and exchanges of hand missiles. This is why I say that the Roman legionary was mostly a javelin-fighter: Most of his time in a battle would have been spent at this close range stand off, throwing javelins and insults at the enemy while he and his peers work up the willpower for a charge. This is also a combat for which they are well equipped, protected by a large shield and wielding javelins well designed to pierce armour and shields alike.

    It is invariably observed that most casualties in an ancient battle don't happen in the actual fighting, they happen in the rout when one side has started to run away. The struggle in ancient battle, then, is not to kill the enemy in combat but to shock them enough, by killing some and terrifying others, that they run away. Ancient battle is a psychological struggle, a struggle of will between one group of humans and another. The charge is the decisive moment of this struggle, where one side will give way, or both sides will slaughter each other until one side gives way. But I stress, it cannot have been a very long period of time. Violence is physically and mentally exhausting on every level. The actual exchanges of blows with hand-weapons must have been short in duration, and even if neither side routed there likely would have been breaks in the combat as both groups of front-fighters recoil to seek to reestablish a safe distance. Inexperienced or poorly trained forces may have broken and routed at the very first onset, the primus impetus, of battle. Better trained, more experienced armies may have met in these short collisions repeatedly before one side was driven off.

    But why a sword, then? Certainly one can use both javelins and a spear. Spears are cheap and very good weapons, their ubiquity testifies to their martial usefulness. The triarii, who are expected to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat under the traditional system, are armed with a spear. Or why not a pike? Contrary to stereotypes, a well-drilled pike block is a manoeuvrable and aggressive formation, and the pike allows for the soldier to stay at a physical and psychological safe distance while still striking the opponents down.

    I think the gladius was the Roman equivalent to a bayonet. The centurion or the tribune commanding the Roman skirmish lines needed to be able to end the missile exchange and slam a charge home instantly and on command, as soon as they perceived the enemy recoiling and ready to break. They needed an equivalent to "fix bayonets". And like the bayonet, I think the gladius was in many ways perhaps primarily a weapon of fear. It is short precisely so as to be inconvenient: You, the individual fighter, must close in as rapidly as possible to use it. It is short to make the soldier aggressive, and to communicate aggression to the enemy. In the Napoleonic era, it is often noted that the bayonet had a particular terrifying effect on morale in battle far out of proportion with the actual casualties it inflicted. Like a musketeer, most of the time in battle the Roman legionary was fighting at range, but the gladius gave them a weapon of shock, a weapon to break the opponent's will and make them run. If the only usefulness of the gladius was to stab people, they would have used a spear, which are better at stabbing people in every way. They adopted the gladius because it terrified their enemies, which made them run.

  9. #9
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    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Look I accept the premise that Roman discipline might not resemble a modern idea of military discipline. However to suggest legionnaires fought individually is nonsense. Romans soldiers were highly disciplined with a well established cadre of officers, a highly evolved set of tactical formations and a history of durability in battle and on campaign.

    The various elements of the legion may not have marched in locked goosestep, very few armies did. Modern military discipline does not actually look like that either, but I would not call Seal Team 6 or Spetnatz or any other elite force undisciplined because they don't enter battle like Fredericks Grenadiers.

    Roman Republican soldiers remained on campaign for years on end despite the system of service having evolved as a seasonal levy. Their discipline was incredibly impressive and adapted robustly to the demands of war with the genius Hannibal.

    We have extensive histories of Roman campaigns because in part of the sophisticated and disciplined administration of the Roman state. The sheer amount of records ensures examples of breakdowns in discipline survive. This does not somehow prove the Roman soldier was a swaggering individualist. Polybios, the informed outsider, records his overwhelming impression of the strength of the Roman system based on political cohesion.

    Compared to a pike phalanx the Roman legion adopted a looser formation. Individual discipline is actually more important in keeping formation when you don't have a comrade at you elbow. I believe Xenophon notes the tendency of the hoplite phalanx to "drift" to compensate for the unshielded right, how much harder to keep a line when there isn't a comrade within touching distance beside and behind?

    The Roman panoply of large shield, spears and gladius was borne by the infantry but were not the only equipment set: at times the triarii or allied hoplites provided denser shield wall options.

    The inclusion of a short sword is not proof of an individualistic fighting style, and I'd note the tactical role of the bayonet is literally to turn a long arm into a pike, that is a pole arm for resisting cavalry. It's evolution into a shock weapon is a clumsy adaption of an older piece of equipment. The pikephalanx like the hoplite phalanx was perfectly adapted to an advance as proven at so many battles, from a marathon to Kynoskephalae (where one Makedonian phalanx bulldozed the Roman left). In the latter example it was only the even more brilliant flexibility of the Roman right to catch the second phalanx in disorder and then redeploy to recover the right that won the day: an example of two highly disciplined forces in near balance resulting in a ver finely balanced battle.

    The Roman system was flexible, and capable of adapting quite quickly both within battle and on campaign. That's not indiscipline, that's fundamental strength.

    Marius' reforms meant soldiers were not obligate citizens but paid employees: late Republican private armies may have expected loot but they were raised with the promise of wages, which is the definition of "professional".

    Overall its it's worthwhile challenging preconceptions and getting a clear picture of what we mean by discipline. However I think you haven't established the Roman soldier was some sort of sword slinging individualist released on the battlefield like a pinball. The Republican Roman soldier obeyed rules, had a lot of officers (IIRC more per unit than the famed Makedonian pike phalanx), stayed in formation for long battles, and stayed on campaign for years, even a decade, on end. Roman society was noted for its cohesion and resilience under extreme stress, and Roman discipline is rightly recognised as a great part of their military success.
    Jatte lambastes Calico Rat

  10. #10

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
    Look I accept the premise that Roman discipline might not resemble a modern idea of military discipline. However to suggest legionnaires fought individually is nonsense. Romans soldiers were highly disciplined with a well established cadre of officers, a highly evolved set of tactical formations and a history of durability in battle and on campaign.
    I rather think you're confusing "disciplined" with organised there. Administering logistics, building march camps, and being able to conduct long duration campaigns are a facet of the latter, not the former.

    A plethora of low level officers also fits with a Roman culture based on initiative and aggression, rather than robotic discipline obeying control from above - you want those little nodes of command there, the Centurions and Tribunes, able to organise and channel the ferocity of the frontline to useful ends, exploiting opportunities, the example that immediately comes to mind being Cynoscephalae.

  11. #11

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
    Look I accept the premise that Roman discipline might not resemble a modern idea of military discipline. However to suggest legionnaires fought individually is nonsense. Romans soldiers were highly disciplined with a well established cadre of officers, a highly evolved set of tactical formations and a history of durability in battle and on campaign.

    The various elements of the legion may not have marched in locked goosestep, very few armies did. Modern military discipline does not actually look like that either, but I would not call Seal Team 6 or Spetnatz or any other elite force undisciplined because they don't enter battle like Fredericks Grenadiers.

    Roman Republican soldiers remained on campaign for years on end despite the system of service having evolved as a seasonal levy. Their discipline was incredibly impressive and adapted robustly to the demands of war with the genius Hannibal.

    We have extensive histories of Roman campaigns because in part of the sophisticated and disciplined administration of the Roman state. The sheer amount of records ensures examples of breakdowns in discipline survive. This does not somehow prove the Roman soldier was a swaggering individualist. Polybios, the informed outsider, records his overwhelming impression of the strength of the Roman system based on political cohesion.

    Compared to a pike phalanx the Roman legion adopted a looser formation. Individual discipline is actually more important in keeping formation when you don't have a comrade at you elbow. I believe Xenophon notes the tendency of the hoplite phalanx to "drift" to compensate for the unshielded right, how much harder to keep a line when there isn't a comrade within touching distance beside and behind?

    The Roman panoply of large shield, spears and gladius was borne by the infantry but were not the only equipment set: at times the triarii or allied hoplites provided denser shield wall options.

    The inclusion of a short sword is not proof of an individualistic fighting style, and I'd note the tactical role of the bayonet is literally to turn a long arm into a pike, that is a pole arm for resisting cavalry. It's evolution into a shock weapon is a clumsy adaption of an older piece of equipment. The pikephalanx like the hoplite phalanx was perfectly adapted to an advance as proven at so many battles, from a marathon to Kynoskephalae (where one Makedonian phalanx bulldozed the Roman left). In the latter example it was only the even more brilliant flexibility of the Roman right to catch the second phalanx in disorder and then redeploy to recover the right that won the day: an example of two highly disciplined forces in near balance resulting in a ver finely balanced battle.

    The Roman system was flexible, and capable of adapting quite quickly both within battle and on campaign. That's not indiscipline, that's fundamental strength.

    Marius' reforms meant soldiers were not obligate citizens but paid employees: late Republican private armies may have expected loot but they were raised with the promise of wages, which is the definition of "professional".

    Overall its it's worthwhile challenging preconceptions and getting a clear picture of what we mean by discipline. However I think you haven't established the Roman soldier was some sort of sword slinging individualist released on the battlefield like a pinball. The Republican Roman soldier obeyed rules, had a lot of officers (IIRC more per unit than the famed Makedonian pike phalanx), stayed in formation for long battles, and stayed on campaign for years, even a decade, on end. Roman society was noted for its cohesion and resilience under extreme stress, and Roman discipline is rightly recognised as a great part of their military success.


    I think that Roman military success in the Republic and up until around the reign of Augustus was in many ways due to a tense and fraught compromise between the individualist aggression which virtus taught them, and the corporate restraint and obedience which disciplina demanded. But look at how Caesar reproaches his men after Gergovia, he tells them that their disobedience was a failure of self-control, rather than a failure of subordination. As far as I can tell from the source texts, Roman disciplina was like a bridle upon a particularly unruly and aggressive warhorse, an animal not entirely inclined towards obedience but which can nonetheless be directed to militarily useful ends.

    Modern discipline, whether that of Frederick the Great's grenadiers or of a SEAL team, is often about ordering men into harm's way. Modern military discipline aims to inculcate a sense of instant obedience to orders which may not be fully understood and which may result in the death of the soldier, who must nonetheless obey. Of course, that's a simplification and it is much more complicated than that, but at heart a modern soldier's discipline is the discipline to go forward into danger when they might really, really not want to do so. The Roman disciplina, in contrast, seems to be about holding one's self back from combat, even when your natural inclination to charge forward and seek glory is pulling you on. Consider what Polybius says of the Roman centurion in Book 6:

    "They wish the centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as to be natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard-pressed and be ready to die at their posts."
    Why is it so desirable to have the leaders be steady and sedate, if the Roman soldier was so disciplined? Why is it desirable to have leaders who could hold their ground and die at their post, if the whole army was already doing so? Centurions were selected for leadership because they were outside the norm of the army, a norm which was extremely aggressive and at times exceeded the restraints of discipline.

    Consider also the nature of the military awards which Polybius details for us:

    To the man who has wounded an enemy, a spear; to him who has slain and stripped an enemy, a cup if he be in the infantry and horse trappings if in the cavalry, although the gift here was originally only a spear. These gifts are not made to men who have wounded or stripped an enemy in a regular battle or at the storming of a city, but to those who during skirmishes or in similar circumstances, where there is no necessity for engaging in single combat, have voluntarily and deliberately thrown themselves into the danger. To the first man to mount the wall at the assault on a city, he gives a crown of gold. So also those who have shielded and saved any of the citizens or allies receive honorary gifts from the consul, and the men they saved crown their preservers, if not under their own free will under compulsion from the tribunes who judge the case. The man thus preserved also reverences his preserver as a father all through his life, and must treat him in every way like a parent.
    Military awards and honours are not given to people who have behaved typically or met minimal expectations, generally speaking. They award people who seek out single combats and wound and kill and strip the enemy during skirmishes, but not for pitched battles. Does this not suggest that killing and stripping an enemy's arms was normal in a pitched battle? Note also the emphasis on stripping a fallen enemy of their panoply on the battlefield, as Marcellus is detailed as having done so in his duel with the King of the Gauls. For an observer like Polybius, a Greek, this surely would have had Homeric overtones and harken back to the tales of single combats and stripping fallen enemies found in the Iliad. They award the first man to mount the wall, in other words the one who has been the most aggressive in a siege and pushes his way to the forefront of battle. Most interestingly of all: They award people who shield and save the lives of their fellow citizens in battle. Does this not suggest that shielding your fellow citizens was thus in some sense not a typical act, as it was seen as unusual enough to be worthy of special honour?

    If that is not enough, Polybius even explicitly singles out how the Roman craving for glory and honour through bravery leads to the success of the Republic in war:

    By this constant renewal of the good report of brave men [Through stories of brave men and their funeral orations], the celebrity of those who performed noble deeds is rendered immortal, while at the same time the fame of those who did good service to their country becomes known to the people and a heritage for future generations. But the most important result is that young men are thus inspired to endure every suffering for public welfare in the hope of winning the glory that attends on brave men.What I say is confirmed by the facts. For many Romans have voluntarily engaged in single combat in order to decide a battle, not a few have faced certain death, some in war to save the lives of the rest, and others in peace to save the republic. Some even when in office have put their own sons to death contrary to every law or custom, setting a higher value on the interest of their country than on the ties of nature that bound them to their nearest and dearest.
    And this behaviour, this reveling in the glory of brave men, is attested in the texts of Caesar, by his constant reporting on the deeds of brave individual centurions such as Vorenus and Pullo. If the rivalry of Vorenus and Pullo does not suffice, consider the deeds of Crastinus at the Battle of Pharsalus:

    There was in Caesar's army, a volunteer named Crastinus, who the year before had been first centurion of the tenth legion, a man of pre-eminent bravery. When the signal was given, he said, "Follow me, my old comrades, and display such exertions on behalf of your general as you have determined to do. This is our last battle, and when it shall be won, he will recover his dignity, and we our liberty."

    At the same time he looked back to Caesar, and said, "General, I will act in such a manner today that you will feel grateful to me, living or dead." After uttering these words he charged on the right wing, and about 120 chosen volunteers of the same century followed.

    [...]

    In that battle, no more than 200 privates were missing, but Caesar lost about 30 centurions, valiant officers. Crastinus, also, of whom mention was made before, fighting most courageously, lost his life by the wound of a sword in the mouth. It had not been false what he had declared when marching to battle: for Caesar entertained the highest opinion of his behavior in that battle, and thought him highly deserving of his approbation.
    De Bello Civili

    Or the deeds of centurions Lucius Fabius and Marcus Petreius at Gergovia:

    Lucius Fabius a centurion of the eighth legion, who, it was ascertained, had said that day among his fellow soldiers that he was excited by the plunder of Avaricum, and would not allow any one to mount the wall before him, finding three men of his own company, and being raised up by them, scaled the wall. He himself, in turn, taking hold of them one by one drew them up to the wall.

    [...]

    While the fight was going on most vigorously, hand to hand, and the enemy depended on their position and numbers, our men on their bravery, the Aedui suddenly appeared on our exposed flank, as Caesar had sent them by another ascent on the right, for the sake of creating a diversion. These, from the similarity of their arms, greatly terrified our men; and although they were discovered to have their right shoulders bare, which was usually the sign of those reduced to peace, yet the soldiers suspected that this very thing was done by the enemy to deceive them. At the same time Lucius Fabius the centurion, and those who had scaled the wall with him, being surrounded and slain, were cast from the wall. Marcus Petreius, a centurion of the same legion, after attempting to hew down the gates, was overpowered by numbers, and, despairing of his safety, having already received many wounds, said to the soldiers of his own company who followed him: "Since I can not save you as well as myself, I shall at least provide for your safety, since I, allured by the love of glory, led you into this danger, do you save yourselves when an opportunity is given." At the same time he rushed into the midst of the enemy, and slaying two of them, drove back the rest a little from the gate. When his men attempted to aid him, "In vain," he says, "you endeavor to procure me safety, since blood and strength are now failing me, therefore leave this, while you have the opportunity, and retreat to the legion." Thus he fell fighting a few moments after, and saved his men by his own death.
    De Bello Gallico

    Also worth considering is that, yes the Roman army is recorded as having a larger proportion of sub-unit leaders than other armies did. Is this indicative of a highly disciplined force, or is it indicative of a force which requires a higher degree of supervision? This supervision was also often ineffectual at keeping the men under control, as happened at both Herdonia and Gergovia. This also makes a great deal of sense: They're in loose array, their army draws up in a series of long thin skirmish lines. It is (comparatively) easy to remain a dense column, as Macedonian pikemen did. Roman legionaries need more sub-unit leadership, because their system is looser by design, and it is looser by design because they are fighting as individuals, mostly throwing javelins and at times making brief terrifying charges to put a recoiling enemy to rout.

    I do think that the Roman legions had both discipline and training, but I think their discipline and their training displayed itself as campaign discipline more than battle discipline. I think their discipline displays itself in the diligent fortification of the marching camp each night, in having a set order of march and a set routine for moving from order of march to order of battle, having an organized system of watches and picquets to guard themselves at night. That was, I think, the real mark of Roman military discipline. This campaigning discipline also transfers well to sieges, the really decisive operation of ancient war. Their battle maneuvers, in contrast, seem to rather been fairly simple and straight forward: Match frontage with the enemy, smash into them headlong until they break. The legions could be responsive to opportunities presented on the battlefield. They were very responsive to having a frontal leader, like Claudius Nero at the Battle of the Metaurus or the tribune of Cynoscephelae, waving a hand over his head and shouting "Follow me!". I do not see, however, much evidence for the legions of the Republic exhibiting a preference for complicated maneuvers or close order formation fighting, and I have both the words of the primary texts and the opinions of noted modern scholars to back me up.

    The Romans did know of close order formation drill, and they did know of spear and pike arrays and must have experienced the unpleasant experience of facing one in battle. It is noteworthy that the triarii, who are expected to rescue a battle when it is going very badly, fought with spears in close order. If the Roman preference was for close order formation fighting as a group, why would they not adopt something like the Macedonian phalanx? Terrain isnot an adequate answer, for the Phalanx evolved in rocky Greece and mountainous Macedon and was used all successfully all over various kinds of terrain. If the Romans were training extensively in close order drill, as the allegations are, why would they prefer such inadequate weapons for close order fighting when spears and pikes are far better at it? If the Romans prefer close order formation fighting, why do they inevitably fail against the phalanx in head to head combat every time they encounter it, and are forced to rely on other elements to achieve victory?

    Arguing that the swords can get past the spears is likewise an ignorant statement, because spears and pikes are such common weapons because they are by far the easiest and most effective hand weapons to use, which is why they are ubiquitous throughout history. If you, armed with a sword, get past a single spear from your opponent in front of you, well big whoop. You now only have to worry about the spears of your enemy's comrades to left and right, and the spear of his comrades behind him as well. That's only with normal spears, it's an even worse situation if you're facing long pikes as Polybius accounts:

    The consequence will be that one Roman must stand opposite two men in the first rank of the phalanx, so that he has to face and encounter ten pikes, and it is both impossible for a single man to cut through them all in time once they are at close quarters and by no means easy to force their points away, as the rear ranks can be of no help to the front rank either in thus forcing the pikes away or in the use of the sword.
    Histories, Book 18, Chapter 30

    This fact is also further evidence for the fact that the Romans must have primarily been javelineers, and used the gladius primarily as the shock element of their infantry attack (Again: Musket and bayonet). In their encounters with the phalanx, they are inevitably pushed back by it but they can fight against frontally for a time. It is physically impossible to do with with a short sword in open order, as the Romans are accounted as doing so. It is, on the other hand, very possible when you are skirmishing from outside of spear-length by throwing javelins into the enemy.
    Last edited by EricD; April 04, 2020 at 11:20 PM.

  12. #12
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    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by EricD View Post
    In this thread, I will be posting a long essay which I have been working on, which examines the military history and culture of the Roman army in its Republic. For sake of reading ease, I have broken down this essay into three posts, and this first post will contain links to the separate sections, divided by the thematic divisions with this essay. I hope you enjoy it and find it educational.

    Part 1: Virtus
    Part 2: Disciplina
    Part 3: Training & Bibliography

    I would like to put a thesis to you:

    The Roman legionaries were not very well-disciplined soldiers. The Roman legionaries were, in point of fact, often aggressive and individualistic to the point of foolishness and disobedience. The Roman legionaries were impatient, rash, and impulsive soldiers, and their great courage brought with it a high chance of disobedient behaviour which would border on mutinous among modern soldiers. They also didn't train much as formations or groups.

    In this, they were not actually very dissimilar to their neighbours within Mediterranean Antiquity. The Gauls and Germans were renowned for their headstrong courage. Likewise, the military histories of the Greeks and Macedonians are replete with examples of headstrong, willful, disobedient or mutinous behaviour from Hellenic soldiers of every poleis and politeia. Roman aggressiveness and lack of discipline was, in fact, quite in line with everyone else’s behaviour. They did not possess great advantages of discipline, orderliness, or training, and their great aggression was similarly quite normal for the times.

    I realize that to many of you I have just spoken heresy. To many people, the iron discipline and training of the Legions is legendary. The conquest of the vast Roman Empire seems evidence of this, and we have the statements of authors like Vegetius and Josephus to support it. The strength of Rome over the barbarian hordes surrounding her was the discipline and training of her legions.

    Or was it?

    [...]

    So much for Virtus. What of the famed Roman discipline?
    I think you touch a very essential issue with the way Roman fighters are imagined in the popular collective imagination. And by popular imagination I include nerdy history enthusiasts too.

    In general people think of the Roman fighters as the ideal fighting force imagined in their 21th century non-military mind. Translating many misconceptions civilians hold toward their current time military forces and adding some more toward the Romans due to a 2 000 years time distance.

    The examples you cites about the Romans are not necessarily case of indiscipline or irrational aggressive but simple glimpse of what the Romans themselves perceived are virtuous courage, warlike mindset to be praised, etc.

    A similar anecdote which is one of my favorite comes from Caesar's de Bellum Gallicum book 1 :

    Chapter 52

    Caesar appointed over each legion a lieutenant and a questor, thatevery one might have them as witnesses of his valor. He himself beganthe battle at the head of the right wing, because he had observedthat part of the enemy to be the least strong. Accordingly our men,upon the signal being given, vigorously made an attack upon the enemy,and the enemy so suddenly and rapidly rushed forward, that there wasno time for casting the javelins at them. Throwing aside [therefore]their javelins, they fought with swords hand to hand. But the Germans,according to their custom, rapidly forming a phalanx, sustained theattack of our swords. There were found very many of our soldiers wholeaped upon the phalanx, and with their hands tore away the shields,and wounded the enemy from above. Although the army of the enemy wasrouted on the left wing and put to flight, they [still] pressed heavilyon our men from the right wing, by the great number of their troops.On observing which, P. Crassus, a young man, who commanded the cavalry‐ as he was more disengaged than those who were employed in the fight‐ sent the third line as a relief to our men who were in distress.


    It is Ariovistus' Germans who fought in the phalanx close rank formation and the Romans who showed extreme aggressiveness in attempts to break the Germans' formation. And it is significant that Caesar uses the word phalanx for the Helvetii and the Germans alone but never for the Romans themselves.

    In popular culture, the Romans are supposed to fight in very close ranks and be stone like impassive as their barbarians foes savagely charge them. Yet if anything it was probably the opposite as the great Caesar himself bear witness.


    Imho maybe you should tone a little bit on the controversial tone to instead focus on the history research work alone. And always put the primary texts before forum user history enthusiasts.

  13. #13
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    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Not sure how having the discipline to use multiple arms effectively makes the Roman soldier undisciplined.

    I'm glad you recognise the triarii at times did fight essentially as a hoplite phalanx. Once again though, adopting and holding any formation requires discipline, and conducting evolutions between formations in battle (eg countermarching the Principes through the Hastati) requires enormous discipline (pike phalanxes seem to have lacked this facility, the front line fought until they dropped or disengaged).

    Open order maniples are not evidence of lesser discipline, and arguiably that spacing may have required more self control. The counter marching manoeuvres of the Scipionic maniple seem more complicated than any other classical system except perhaps the Spartans who, marching to the sound of fifes and could manoeuvre by rank and by file.

    Explaining individual actions in terms of personal attributes is a commonplace of classical writers. Polybios seems to have been a reliable and insightful enquirer, and the chief element of the Roman system he comments on is social cohesion. He nowhere to my knowledge attributes Roman successes to superior indiscipline.

    I don't see a very string correlation between a musket armed and pilum armed infantry man: one has at most a buff coat, the other heavy body armour and a large shield. Likewise the sword and bayonet are not that similar either, in most armies at most times the bayonet was a defensive anti-cavalry weapon. I think you mention the sword is strictly an attacking weapon, not being useful for fending off anything much. It may have had an "intimidation buff" but so does a shield wall: the Athenian phalanx charging at Marathon (with the enormous disparity in casualties indicating a rapid break in Persian morale) demonstrates that.

    You discuss interesting points but I think you should sort out your terminology a bit. Lockstep is not a synonym for discipline except in lazy newspaper journalism.

    Discipline comes from the Latin meaning follower or pupil, and having the sense of strict rules and punishments used to educate or enforce behaviour. We know Republican Roman soldiers were subject to harsh discipline, which they by and large accepted across the evolving political and military systems. Individual generals might revolt against the state but Roman Legions rarely did (I think the large scale revolts under Augustus are the first i know of).

    Roman soldiers were also noted for their willingness to undertake labour that some military castes would refuse to do, eg castramentation.

    I think its nonsense to describe them as undisciplined with relation to contemporaries: in their own time they were remarkably disciplined. Its worthwhile dispelling notions they were battlefield robots and teasing out as you say the tension between individual aggression and group obedience.
    Jatte lambastes Calico Rat

  14. #14

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by Anna_Gein View Post
    Imho maybe you should tone a little bit on the controversial tone to instead focus on the history research work alone. And always put the primary texts before forum user history enthusiasts.
    Pardon, where exactly did EricD so much as mention a 'forum history enthusiast'? Like, the guy is up there giving a bibligiography of primary sources, he's not exactly throwing out wild claims here.
    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
    Not sure how having the discipline to use multiple arms effectively makes the Roman soldier undisciplined.

    I'm glad you recognise the triarii at times did fight essentially as a hoplite phalanx. Once again though, adopting and holding any formation requires discipline, and conducting evolutions between formations in battle (eg countermarching the Principes through the Hastati) requires enormous discipline (pike phalanxes seem to have lacked this facility, the front line fought until they dropped or disengaged).

    Open order maniples are not evidence of lesser discipline, and arguiably that spacing may have required more self control. The counter marching manoeuvres of the Scipionic maniple seem more complicated than any other classical system except perhaps the Spartans who, marching to the sound of fifes and could manoeuvre by rank and by file.

    Explaining individual actions in terms of personal attributes is a commonplace of classical writers. Polybios seems to have been a reliable and insightful enquirer, and the chief element of the Roman system he comments on is social cohesion. He nowhere to my knowledge attributes Roman successes to superior indiscipline.

    I don't see a very string correlation between a musket armed and pilum armed infantry man: one has at most a buff coat, the other heavy body armour and a large shield. Likewise the sword and bayonet are not that similar either, in most armies at most times the bayonet was a defensive anti-cavalry weapon. I think you mention the sword is strictly an attacking weapon, not being useful for fending off anything much. It may have had an "intimidation buff" but so does a shield wall: the Athenian phalanx charging at Marathon (with the enormous disparity in casualties indicating a rapid break in Persian morale) demonstrates that.

    You discuss interesting points but I think you should sort out your terminology a bit. Lockstep is not a synonym for discipline except in lazy newspaper journalism.

    Discipline comes from the Latin meaning follower or pupil, and having the sense of strict rules and punishments used to educate or enforce behaviour. We know Republican Roman soldiers were subject to harsh discipline, which they by and large accepted across the evolving political and military systems. Individual generals might revolt against the state but Roman Legions rarely did (I think the large scale revolts under Augustus are the first i know of).

    Roman soldiers were also noted for their willingness to undertake labour that some military castes would refuse to do, eg castramentation.

    I think its nonsense to describe them as undisciplined with relation to contemporaries: in their own time they were remarkably disciplined. Its worthwhile dispelling notions they were battlefield robots and teasing out as you say the tension between individual aggression and group obedience.
    This, on the other hand, is a bunch of wild claims. You're dismissing an essay that diligently sources its arguments across eight primary and five secondary texts, many of which are contemporary sources, on the basis of... What, bellyfeel? An HBO show? Since that's all you have to offer, I shall reply in kind: 'countermarching' wasn't even a Roman tactic. It first turns up in the writings of William Louis, brother to Maurice, the Prince of Orange in the 1600's, who claims (unverifiably) to have discovered countermarching as an evolution of drills laid out in the Aelianus Tacticus, possibly inspired by Chorean or Persian techniques, which he could apply to the use of firearms. The Romans did not countermarch. The Romans simply followed the natural flow of battle; where the front lines suffer badly they either retreat or are reinforced, in either case being replaced by fighters from the rear. Nothing complicated about it.

    (The reputation of Sparta, also, is wildly overblown and I would actually mark them as even less able to perform complex maneuovres than Roman formations. I'll grant that this is a bold claim, and should people take issue with it I am prepared to back it up, but as it is rather afield of the topic of this thread I shall leave this as an aside for now)
    Last edited by Imrix; April 05, 2020 at 11:40 PM.

  15. #15

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by EricD View Post
    I think, secondly, that the pila and gladius worked as a combination of "fire" (for lack of a better term) and shock (By which I mean, inflicting fear on the enemy). It is important to remember that men on the battlefield are not Total War units and do not, generally speaking, rush into close combat heedlessly. The human instinct for self-preservation is a strong one, and humans almost always prefer to fight from safety (Which usually means fighting from a distance). David Grossman's battlefield psychology work On Killing found that soldiers found inflicting violence on others easier when they could have a physical and psychological distance between themselves and their opponent.
    It's more complicated than that. Grossman is a terrible reference. While he has made a lucrative career for himself largely pedaling a message people would like to be true, his research is based on poor methodology and an even worse understanding of evolutionary biology.

    Quoting from Robert Engen's "Killing for their Country: A New Look at 'Killology'," Canadian Military Journal 9, no. 2 (Summer 2008):

    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    Human Nature

    Grossman’s ideas with respect to the application of biology and psychology to the military profession have been instrumental in establishing him as an authority on human behavioural issues. One suspects that much of Grossman’s popularity is due to a highly optimistic view of human nature. As he writes in On Killing, “...from the standpoint of a historian, a psychologist, and a soldier, I began to realize that there was one major factor that was missing from the common understanding of killing ... the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow men.” This resistance is so strong, Grossman tells us, that in most circumstances, soldiers in battle will die before they will overcome it.5 He further stipulates the presence in every human being of “...a force that understands at some gut level that all humanity is inextricably interdependent and that to harm any part is to harm the whole.”6 This is an uncompromisingly optimistic view of human nature and biology, and the appeal is understandable. No doubt, the world would be better off if human nature corresponded to this theory.

    Unfortunately, these ideas seem inconsistent with what scientists and researchers tell us about human behaviour, which is far richer and more complicated than Grossman acknowledges. Despite what “killology” teaches, an innate biological resistance to killing is neither simple nor consistently demonstrable in human beings. There is much that we do not know about biology, evolution, and the place of humanity in nature, but our best current knowledge does not lend much support to Grossman’s theories.

    Take, for instance, where Grossman’s work touches upon animal behaviour. One of his central claims is that human behaviour under stress is really no different from that of any other animal.7 He takes as proof the assertion that animal species do not kill within their own species, and that “...when the fight option is utilized, it is almost never to the death.” Instead, he claims, animals go through a process of posturing and non-lethal combat that is supposedly vital to the survival of the whole species, preventing needless death and allowing young males to live through early confrontations to pass on their genes at a later time.8 Grossman is referring to natural selection, of course, but apparently he has a flawed understanding of how this process actually works. Natural selection in biology is a deeply selfish mechanism, and it is fundamentally about the best-adapted individuals surviving to pass on their own genes. In the natural evolutionary process, there is a struggle for reproductive advantage within a species, and victory usually goes to individuals best adapted to their circumstances.9 There is no genetic imperative in living things to care about the survival of the species as a whole. Organisms are not as altruistic as Grossman believes, and animal behaviour is shaped by maximum survival and reproductive success of the individual or its close kin, and not of the species.10

    It is conceivable that restraint and posturing in intra-specific combat developed as adaptations in some species, since, in nature, deadly combat would likely leave the victor almost as mauled as the loser. A species that could gradually adapt toward non-lethal intra- specific violence might possess a reproductive advantage. At the same time, however, deadly aggression can also be viewed from an evolutionary perspective as an adaptation.11 Despite Grossman’s claims to the contrary, animals do kill within their own species. Mankind’s closest genetic relative in the animal kingdom is the common chimpanzee, with whom we share some 98.4 percent of our DNA. There have been many documented cases of chimpanzees killing each other, most famously in Dr. Jane Goodall’s observation of the extermination of one chimpanzee band by another between 1974 and 1977. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and scientist Jared Diamond claims, “...[that] of all our human hallmarks ... the one that has been derived most straightforwardly from animal precursors is genocide. Common chimps already carried out planned killings, extermination of neighboring bands, wars of territorial conquest, and abduction of nubile young females.” Diamond takes this point further, saying, “...[that] if chimps were given spears and some instruction in their use, their killing would undoubtedly begin to approach ours in efficiency.”12 Aside from the primates, wolves and other wild dogs engage in very deadly intra-specific fighting, and, beyond the humans that hunt them, they are generally their own greatest source of mortality. The common pavement ant is notoriously aggressive, engaging in pitched battles involving masses of workers. Lions also on occasion kill other lions, and there are reports of the killing and cannibalization of cubs after one of their protector males has died and their territory was invaded by other prides.13 Species do exist that have adapted, if not for constant murderous behaviour, then at least for the potential for deadly intra-specific competition; others have evolved toward more non-lethal violence. Chimpanzees kill one another, but gorillas do not appear to do so. More research into these phenomena is required, but this evidence does not suggest a universal “resistance to killing” biological imperative at work. Within some species, the ability and willingness to kill its own kind, and to develop a reputation for doing so, can be seen as a beneficial adaptation.14 Biologist Konrad Lorenz believed that mankind in particular had never developed non-lethal intra-specific behaviour or structural elements. While Grossman claims otherwise, there is no evidence of a “natural” resistance to killing governing intra- specific behaviour in the animal kingdom.

    However, Lorenz also cautioned against drawing anthropomorphic conclusions from animal research. Humans may be part of the living world, but we are also unique in it, if only because of our capacity for higher- order cognition. The argument could still be made that human beings possess – have evolved an adaptation toward, or perhaps were “gifted” with by God – an innate resistance against intra-specific killing, even if our genetic neighbours have not. This would probably be Grossman’s perspective. He refers to 98 percent of people as “sheep” – kind, decent, cooperative people who cannot kill and who need protection by those who can.15 In his book, The Dark Side of Man, biologist and anthropologist Michael Ghiglieri derides such thinking as coming from the “...Bambi school of biology, a Disneyesque vision of nature as a collection of moralistic and altruistic creatures ... if anything is really wrong with us, it explains, it is a sociocultural problem that we can fix by resocializing people. It is not a biological problem.”16 Ghiglieri has criticized this narrow understanding of human violence, specifically claiming that Grossman’s On Killing engages in unabashed “wishful thinking” that killing is an acquired proclivity that society must inculcate. Books such as these, Ghiglieri writes, “...were written by people with little or no understanding of biology – or who simply ignored or denied its findings ... anyone insisting that men do not have an instinct to kill other men is in factual error.”17

    Despite Grossman’s claims, there exists no midbrain evolutionary mechanism in humans that prevents healthy people from killing one another for the good of the species. There is much debate with respect to the extent to which any human behaviour can be regarded as “instinctive,” but what is clear is that if human behaviour is dominated by instinct and genetic imperative, it operates along the selfish individual-oriented lines of natural selection, and it has developed in a violent fashion. Intra-specific aggression, cruelty, and killing may have emerged in prehistoric man as early as 1.5 million years ago as a hominid behavioural mechanism which promoted evolutionary fitness through personal and social power.18 In short, social challenges can threaten the individual with a loss of face, with the resultant threat to reproductive success; such challenges can and do lead to deadly confrontations in defence of status and reputation.19 Individuals who develop or enhance a reputation for ferocity and murder will have opportunities to wrest resources from others without the need for risky, direct conflict – improving their own survival “fitness” through social reputation.20 The numbers suggest that even modern humans are more than willing to kill over social status and the loss of face. American criminologists have found that the motives for most homicides in the United States – 53 percent of all known cases in 1995 and 55 percent in 1996 – were “altercations of relatively trivial origin; insult, curse, jostling, etc.”21 Not only do humans kill one another, but we do so in patterns that often benefits short-term survival and genetic dominance of the individual, and for reasons that, to the outside observer, would appear to be trivial. Although violence is not always desirable or inevitable – nor need that violence become deadly – individuals possessing a degree of aggressiveness may once have been better-adapted to survive and to leave descendants.22 Grossman’s work tends to portray humans as slaves to an altruistic evolutionary mechanism that does not exist. While he has argued convincingly that human beings do have increased stress reactions to intra-specific violence, as opposed to other kinds of trauma,23 there is little evidence in evolutionary biology to support an innate resistance to killing.

    One possible defence of the “killology” theory would be the claim made in On Combat that, regardless of all of the numbers, only the two percent of the population supposedly born without this resistance to killing (the sociopathic “wolves”) do the great majority of the face-to-face killing in both war and society (killing at a distance being psychologically different).24 Grossman appears to have arrived at this number by examining studies from the Second World War, which demonstrated that after 60 days of sustained combat, 98 percent of combat soldiers would become psychiatric casualties, and the two percent who did not showed a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities.”25 He extrapolates that these “damaged” personalities were the only people reliably carrying out face-to-face killing throughout history (until very recently). Exceptions include when non-killers are in groups, when they are under authority, or when an opponent is running away from them, all of which were circumstances Grossman identifies as those in which “normal” individuals might overcome their resistance to killing. This list of exceptions is substantial enough on its own that one might reasonably question the effectiveness of this “resistance,” even by Grossman’s standards. But one should also not overlook just how easy it can be to make “normal” individuals inflict lethal pain upon one another. Stanley Milgram’s much-cited experiments in obedience to authority offer compelling proof of this point.26 Milgram found that 65 percent of subjects in an experiment were willing to inflict what they believed was a lethal dose of electricity onto a stranger, simply because they were told to do so by an authority figure. Furthermore, 30 percent were willing to inflict what they believed was a lethal shock to a victim while in physical contact, literally holding them down to shock them.27 In multiple experiments, the subjects responded similarly, regardless of age, ideology, religion, nationality, or (most surprisingly) gender.28 Grossman cites Milgram’s study as well, but if the “average” person was prepared to kill face-to-face more than half the time at the simple insistence of a minor authority figure, then the idea that only a tiny minority of human beings can “naturally” kill seems doubtful. The power of authority and leadership should not be underestimated – the whole point of Milgram’s experiment – but such results cast healthy doubt upon claims that most humans cannot kill. If this resistance to killing can be undone so easily and consistently, one can argue that it likely does not exist at all.

    An example from military history shows the “killology” theories dealing with the socio/psychopathic two percent to be even more doubtful. It is a documented fact that soldiers from support branches behind the lines are far more likely to engage in unjustified violence and commit atrocities than are combat troops. Support troops are reported to hate the enemy more than those who have experienced combat, and are more likely to plunder, to be cruel to civilians, and to kill enemy prisoners. Israeli military psychologist Ben Shalit found that in the Israeli Defence Forces, cases of breaking the military code were many times higher for support troops than for combat troops – and that similar evidence for more aggressive behaviour by non-combatant soldiers came out of US troops in Vietnam, as well as by German troops in the USSR during the Second World War.29 Are there more “wolves” in the support ranks than in the combat arms, or are the group dynamics and pent-up aggressions overcoming the resistance to killing for support troops? If so, one might again observe how easy it appears to be to overcome this resistance to killing. It is likely impossible to quantify, but it appears very unlikely that only the socio/psychopathic two percent of human beings have done most of the world’s killing in the past.

    Even a layman’s examination of the literature in biology and psychology shows little support for Grossman’s theory on a resistance to killing. As Dr. Michael Allen Fox stated in a recent open peer commentary, strong evidence exists for regarding the perpetration of killing and cruelty as having “deep evolutionary, neurological, and biochemical underpinnings, and we probably must accept this.”30 Of course, everything we think we know could be disproved should new verifiable evidence be discovered. Such is the nature of scientific inquiry. However, Grossman has not provided sufficiently extraordinary evidence to support his claims about a resistance to killing. The best evidence on human nature tells us that whatever resistance or “phobia” we have toward killing is ethical in origin, a result of higher intellectual functions and the shaping of our socio-cultural background.31 Not every person has killed or will kill, but to suggest that the great majority are incapable of killing is to make an extraordinary claim, and one that does not possess any extraordinary biological or psychological evidence to give it credence.

    S.L.A. Marshall’s Ratio of Fire

    Grossman draws most of the evidence for his theories on killing from military history, specifically, from the controversial writings of S.L.A. Marshall, a journalist with the US Army’s Historical Section during the Second World War. Marshall developed an innovative post-combat interview technique wherein he would speak to a unit of soldiers fresh out of combat, and, together, they would attempt to reconstruct an action. In terms of historical methodology this was a good idea. However, the claims that Marshall made, supposedly based upon his interview data, proved to be controversial. He claimed that only 15 to 25 percent of even the best-trained soldiers would ever fire their weapons in combat. As Marshall wrote in his book on the subject, Men against Fire, “... 75 per cent will not fire or will not persist in firing at the enemy and his works. These men may face danger but they will not fight.”32 Marshall’s conclusion was that the average, healthy individual possessed an unconscious “...inner unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man,” although with Marshall there was no talk of evolutionary biology and more reference to socialization.33 He claimed that these statistics were a universal truth of human combat, fully backed up by his painstaking research and interviews.

    The US Army accepted his conclusions at face value and, according to Marshall and his supporters, implemented changes to combat training that would subsequently boost the combat firing ratio of infantry soldiers. Marshall reported, using his same interview techniques, that the ratio had risen to 55 percent of soldiers firing their weapons by the Korean War, and was over 90 percent in Vietnam.34 The problem had been solved, and by the time anyone was seriously questioning these numbers, almost all soldiers were supposedly firing their weapons in combat. Marshall’s data allegedly proves Grossman’s argument about a resistance to killing, and Grossman employs these numbers lavishly and as being absolutely correct in all his “killology” works, claiming that raising the firing ratio from 15 percent in Normandy to 90 percent in the Falklands War “...represents a six-fold increase in combat effectiveness.”35 The difference is supposedly in special conditioning techniques that are now used to train soldiers to kill. Prior to their introduction, hardly any soldiers fired their weapons, let alone killed anyone with them.

    Marshall has been praised as a great military historian, and he has no doubt contributed to the knowledge of warfare, particularly in terms of the human elements of combat. However, one should remain faithful to the axiom that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Marshall’s claims were certainly extraordinary. What of his evidence?

    Here, Marshall becomes extremely problematic as a source. Historians and researchers since the 1980s have been consistently demonstrating that Marshall did not have the evidence to back up his claims. Roger Spiller, among the first historians to publicly criticize Marshall, claimed that his ratio of fire numbers were “...an invention,” and that “Marshall had no use for polite equivocations of scholarly discourse. His way of proving doubtful propositions was to state them forcefully. Righteousness was always more important for Marshall than evidence.”36 Other historians discovered that none of Marshall’s aides and assistants could ever remember Marshall asking the troops questions during the group interviews that had anything to do with whether they had fired their weapons.37 In the surviving field notebooks used by Marshall during his interviews, historians have found no signs of the statistical compilations that would have been necessary to deduce a ratio as precise as that found in Men Against Fire.38 Such a precise, surprising number as the 15 to 25 percent ratio should have required a great amount of hard work and data-gathering to arrive at, but there is no evidence that Marshall carried out the statistical legwork his claims imply. The only interview notes actually located were found in an archive of a Maryland National Guard division, wherein soldiers testified to having used their weapons in action. There was no mention of the ratio of fire.39

    Marshall was employed by the US Army’s Historical Section, and his job as an army historian was the compilation of battlefield narratives. Systematically compiling and analyzing statistical data was not what the Historical Section was about, nor was it something for which Marshall had any interest or training. This makes Marshall’s statistics, at best, an estimation based upon personal observations. And with no surviving notes or documentation that would substantiate his claims, and no corroborating evidence from Marshall’s companions, there is only Marshall’s word that his claims regarding the ratio of fire were supported by the empirical evidence of his interviews.

    Of course, it is still possible, and no doubt Grossman would claim, that even if Marshall did not ‘crunch the numbers,’ his claims were, nonetheless, highly accurate. Part of the reason that Marshall’s ratio of fire is still quoted frequently by historians and military analysts is that while Marshall’s credibility has been thoroughly undermined, there has never been much evidence from the Second World War to either corroborate or disprove his ratio of fire theory. The excellent survey research carried out by American psychologist Samuel Stouffer and his team during the war, for example, contains no information either way on the issue of soldiers firing their weapons.40 No other source at the time was discussing the ratio of fire at all, it seems, so while Marshall’s credibility has been attacked, his numbers have never really been refuted with documentary evidence.

    The issue of Marshall’s ratio of fire was one that I have always found to be very interesting, and when I decided to pursue graduate studies in history, I began researching the subject to see what corroborating evidence might exist in the primary source documentation. In mid-2007, I began examining a series of battle experience questionnaires filled out by Canadian infantry officers during the Second World War, addressing as they did a wide array of tactical questions, and giving the soldiers the opportunity to provide feedback and personal comments with respect to combat. Several hundred questionnaires were filled out by Canadians from rifle companies in 1944 and 1945 shortly after they had returned from combat, giving them the same immediacy attributed to Marshall’s group interviews. Given the similar timeframe to Marshall, as well as the similar content, I believe they are at least as credible a source as Men Against Fire, and likely more so, since the original questionnaires can still be found and verified at the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa. These battle experience questionnaires are quite candid, and they explore the tactical realities facing Allied soldiers in the Second World War, both in the Mediterranean theatre and in northwest Europe. I perused over 150 of the infantry surveys stored at LAC over the course of several months, compiling statistics from the formal survey questions and transcribing all the informal personal comments that had been attached. The evidence I collected became the basis for my Master’s thesis, which, as this article goes to press, is being revised as a manuscript.41

    There is a wealth of varied information contained in these questionnaires, but what they can tell us about Marshall’s ratio of fire is pivotal. Not a single one of the questionnaires – filled out by infantry officers who fought at close quarters and commanded rifle companies, platoons, and sections in combat – mentions anything about soldiers not firing their weapons. Indeed, the exact opposite appeared to be the major problem – that is, Canadian troops firing too much, wasting ammunition, and giving away their positions.42 Most officers, however, were generally satisfied with the rate of small-arms fire, and they regarded it as being very effective in battle, particularly for defeating the inevitable German counterattacks that followed every offensive action.43 A failure on the part of some of their troops to actively participate in battle was only highlighted by a few respondents during discussions of combat fatigue and ‘green’ replacement soldiers, and even those cases constituted a small minority. If over 75 percent of the riflemen under their command would not fight, as Marshall and Grossman claim, then the officers filling out the questionnaires would have noticed. Given their candid responses and genuine desire to help the Canadian Army train and fight better – the stated purpose of the questionnaires was to provide feedback with respect to combat training and experience while the war was still going on – it is extremely implausible that they would have overlooked, concealed, or covered up such alarmingly relevant information.

    The questionnaires demonstrate that infantry combat is too complex, fluid, and terrifying an experience to be reduced to simple numbers. Today’s hero could easily be tomorrow’s coward (a point Marshall tried to make), and soldiers could not easily be reduced to the labels of killer/non-killer, or shooter/non-shooter.

    A parallel study to Marshall’s interviews, then, fully documented and straight from the subjects themselves with no intermediary, presents data that is in direct contradiction to that of Marshall. The questionnaire respondents were exclusively Canadian, of course, and they cover a completely different set of subjects than Marshall’s interviews. They also apply only to the Canadian experience. However, Marshall strongly implied that his 15 to 25 percent ratio of fire was a universal condition of modern warfare, and Grossman has been very explicit in his championing of the universality of this phenomenon as a part of human nature.44 The evidence from the Canadian battle experience questionnaires indicates that non-participation in combat by riflemen was not a problem in the Canadian Army between 1943 and 1945; that infantry fire was usually quite effective; and that if there was a problem with the firing it was always due to too much fire rather than too little. Supposing Marshall was correct with respect to his claims, and there were problems with non-participation in the US Army, then either the Canadian Army was, by Grossman’s reckoning, many times more effective a fighting force (of which there is no evidence) or else claiming the universality of Marshall’s findings is factually incorrect. While it might be going too far to call S.L.A. Marshall a liar, he appears to have simply been wrong in his claims about the ratio of fire.

    Although Grossman cites a few other pieces of evidence from military history to support his “killology” thesis, S.L.A. Marshall’s “hard data” is the centerpiece of his argument regarding the inability to kill: most of what remains is either derived from Marshall or anecdotal in nature. Since it is Marshall that forms the core of evidence underlying many of Grossman’s claims about killing in war, there are obvious problems inherent to reading the “killology” literature without reservation.
    Grossman's overarching hypothesis can be filed with the hypotheses that Neolithic technology was largely spread via cultural diffusion rather than population replacement and that prehistoric people didn't engage in warfare, both of which are ultimately false and seemingly arose from the same academic zeitgeist.

    If you want to understand the inclination for behaviors such as single combat, counting coup, and leading from the front from an evolutionary perspective, the scientific literature on costly signalling would be a good place to look. A universal preference for skirmishing and ambushes rather than rushing to close combat only makes sense in a social context where there aren't potentially high evolutionary fitness benefits for risk taking.
    Quote Originally Posted by Enros View Post
    You don't seem to be familiar with how the burden of proof works in when discussing social justice. It's not like science where it lies on the one making the claim. If someone claims to be oppressed, they don't have to prove it.


  16. #16

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by sumskilz View Post
    It's more complicated than that. Grossman is a terrible reference. While he has made a lucrative career for himself largely pedaling a message people would like to be true, his research is based on poor methodology and an even worse understanding of evolutionary biology.
    He's not embracing the entirety of Grossman's more debatable theories (what with advocating that the Romans prized getting into arm's length and hacking foes apart with essentially a big butcher's knife), but the idea that humans find it easier to kill while both physically and mentally distancing themselves from the target is rather uncontroversial.

  17. #17
    Ducenarius
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    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    @sumskilz: I found Leo Murrays "Brains and Bullets" a good Book about the topic, it takes up much of Grossmanns theorems and refudes them.

    @Imrix: You have a strange definition of "wild claims".

  18. #18
    Abdülmecid I's Avatar ¡Ay Carmela!
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    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Perhaps I am missing something, but I really don't understand how Marshall's Ratio of Fire numbers were not treated with skepticism from the beginning. Firstly, only the fact that the percentages increased so dramatically in such a short space of time is more indicative of flawed methodology than the alleged efficiency of new training doctrines. Moreover, in my opinion, it would be relatively easy to approximately determine the fire ratio, based on a research about ammunition expenditure. Of course, the conclusions cannot be completely precise, as supplies are frequently lost outside combat, while there are also remarkable discrepancies in how often and indiscriminately individual soldiers fire their weapons, but a careful analysis of the statistics could certainly give a general picture, corroborating or disproving Marshall's claims.

    In fact, there have been published articles about ill-disciplined Ottoman infantrymen unnecessarily wasting their bullets without inflicting serious casualties on the enemy, while it has also been noted that the conscripts of the Third Republic fired a disproportional amount of bullets against their Prussian and Bavarian adversaries, in comparison to the largely more professional army of the Second Empire. The difference is easily explained by the fact that experienced veterans are less likely to empty their magazine on an opponent they have essentially no chance to hit. I imagine that the archives of the logistic services of the modern American forces are much more accessible, comprehensible, reliable and informative than those of imperial France and Turkey during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so verifying Marshall's theory shouldn't be particularly difficult.
    Last edited by Abdülmecid I; April 06, 2020 at 06:41 AM. Reason: Extra words.

  19. #19

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by Abdülmecid I View Post
    Perhaps I am missing something, but I really don't understand how Marshall's Ratio of Fire numbers were not treated with skepticism from the beginning. Firstly, only the fact that the percentages increased so dramatically in such a short space of time is more indicative of flawed methodology than the alleged efficiency of new training doctrines. Moreover, in my opinion, it would be relatively easy to approximately determine the fire ratio, based on a research about ammunition expenditure. Of course, the conclusions cannot be completely precise, as supplies are frequently lost outside combat, while there are also remarkable discrepancies in how often and indiscriminately individual soldiers fire their weapons, but a careful analysis of the statistics could certainly give a general picture, corroborating or disproving Marshall's claims.

    In fact, there have been published articles about ill-disciplined Ottoman infantrymen unnecessarily wasting their bullets without inflicting serious casualties on the enemy, while it has also been noted that the conscripts of the Third Republic fired a disproportional amount of bullets against their Prussian and Bavarian adversaries, in comparison to the largely more professional army of the Second Empire. The difference is easily explained by the fact that experienced veterans are less likely to empty their magazine on an opponent they have essentially no chance to hit. I imagine that the archives of the logistic services of the modern American forces are much more accessible, comprehensible, reliable and informative than those of imperial France and Turkey during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so verifying Marshall's theory shouldn't be particularly difficult.


    The problem with Marshall is in interpretating the data. The data he uses to justify his conclusion could have alternate explanationz. For example, in the US Civil War at Gettysburg, I read that the Confederates spent 7 million rounds at Gettysburg to inflict around 23,000 casualties, 3200 killed, which works out to 130 bullets per casualty 940 rounds per kill.. In contrast, it is said it took 45,000 rounds per kill in WW2 for US troops, and 50,000 for Vietnam. The explanation for the difference is nt that Civil War Americans were more predisposed to kill, but that more rapdid firing guns used by WW2 and avietnam.soldiers allowed the soldiers to waste more ammunitionm The M1 and especially M16 used in Vietnam shoot far more rapidly than the muzzle loading guns of the Civil War. This confirmed the concerns of those Civil War generals who opposed the introduction of rapid firing guns like the Spencer rifle, who said these kind of guns would encourage soldiers waste ammo. Faster firing gun do encourage soldiers to waste ammunition over slower firing weapons, but they miss the point that achieving victory is more important than saving ammo.
    Last edited by Common Soldier; April 07, 2020 at 11:33 PM.

  20. #20

    Default Re: The Disobedient Roman Soldier

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    The problem with Marshall is in interpretating the data.
    There is no evidence that he ever collected any statistical data.
    Quote Originally Posted by Enros View Post
    You don't seem to be familiar with how the burden of proof works in when discussing social justice. It's not like science where it lies on the one making the claim. If someone claims to be oppressed, they don't have to prove it.


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