The battle tactics of ancient rome were gradually refined with time as the types of terrain and enemies changes. The great ability of ancient rome was that of learning from mistakes and picking up the best of what the enemy had to teach.
The battle tactics of ancient Rome were gradually refined with time, in line with the types of terrain and enemies they encountered. The great ability of ancient Rome was that of learning from mistakes and picking up the best of what their allies or the enemy had to teach and diffusing the innovation into their military tactics.
Roman battle tactics were integral with the structure of the armed forces, their training, war machines and also highly advanced and often innovative equipment and weaponry.
Innovative Battle Tactics brought the first naval victories and were commemorated by the rostrum in the Forum for ever more.
A beautiful and resounding example of successful Roman battle tactics stemming from learning and adapting for different conditions was against the Carthaginians in the naval battle of Mylae of 260BC during the First Punic War (longest war of antiquity lasting 24years). Until around 300BC the Roman Republic had no navy worthy of the name and at best had managed to collect some 20 triremes through her allies. Engaging the naval power of Carthage who controlled Sicily and Sardinia would require 100’s of quinquiremes – larger than triremes, and with crews of some 300 oarsmen. According to the historian Polybius the Romans had the fortune of capturing a Carthaginian quinquireme and copied it to make their own fleet. This fleet was nevertheless made of far slower and unwieldy ships than their Carthaginian enemy. Furthermore they were crewed by newly trained Roman sailors who had previously been little more than farmers. Recognising their tactical inferiority the Romans modified the ships to include a “corvus”: a 10-11m bridge with a spike at the end which could be pivoted and dropped from the Roman ship across to the enemy ship. This had the effect of fastening the two ships together, preventing the other’s agility and allowing the Roman trained infantry to board and capture the enemy.
This event allowed the Romans to capture as many as 50 enemy ships and became the first naval triumph of Rome’s history. The famous “Rostra” at the Roman forum echo back to this event.
Unforgettable tactical defeats at the hands of Hannibal
This doesn’t mean that ancient Rome’s battle tactics were always the best and in fact one of the textbook examples of battle tactics also comes from the wars against the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War and the Carthaginian general “Hannibal”. The battles he fought against the Romans and particularly the battle at Cannae of 216BC. The Pincer strategy he employed at the battle brought such a resounding defeat for the Roman Republic that it lived on in popular minds as one of the most horrific events which had befallen them.
Hannibal’s victories soon gave away the Romans’ weakness: Their cavalry which hitherto had generally been made up of inexperienced noblemen rich enough to be of “Equestrian” rank but lacking in experience. Roman strength generally lay in its poorer infantry class and this had tended to shape their tactics.
Reshaping the Roman army into a professional highly trained battle force
General Marius was given command at a time when years of wars had severely impoverished the supply of able soldiers that he could get through the traditional conscription methods. Around 106BC Marius introduced a number of reforms among which was the creation of a standing professional army. This was a substantial change with many unexpected ramifications but its primary and successful outcome was the creation of a well trained standing army that could be both highly trained and quickly available.
The development and successful execution of predefined fighting formations and battle tactics could be more successfully drilled and more successfully executed in live battles. A number of standard formations already popular in antiquity were practiced and developed such as the Cuneus (wedge), Caput Porcinum (pig’s head), circular Globus, Forfex scisors or the rectangular Pyrgus.
Survival of the fittest for Roman Generals
The politicised nature of the Roman army hierarchy, the personal alignment of soldiers to their general and the alignment of generals to political factions set the stage for vicious civil wars. It also created a system whereby the most able and daring military commanders could stand out. A dynamic which was at the same time destructive but also developed the most effective of fighting capability and battle tactics. This was the case for Marius, Sulla, Caesar and others who could bring home the spoils of the victories and be awarded public recognition in their triumphal marches through Rome.
Battle tactics and amazing strategies could make a general’s name memorable for eternity
Numerous battles and the tactics employed within them were so resounding as to etch in history the name of those involved. An example of this is the battle of Tigranocerta (Armenia) during the Third Mithridatic war in 69BC: Vastly outnumbered 10:1 the Roman Republic’s Consul Lucullus, used Gallic and Thracian cavalry auxiliaries to dristract the enemy he ultimately overturned the forces of Mithridates VI and took his capital Tigranocerta.
Julius Caesar’s battles were often an example of the value of military engineering applied to war and battle tactics. Such as in the construction of an incredible bridge across the Rhine or of double-reinforced siege enclosures around the entire Gaulish city of Alesia – designed to prevent the enemy to escape from the city, whilst also defending and preventing their allies to attack the Romans from the outside.
The use of foreign mercenaries, often Celts from northern and Eastern Europe had been common practice by all peoples of the Mediterranean since before the Roman age. As the Roman dominions grew larger the Romans recruited increasingly large numbers of foreign fighters into their ranks, particularly as auxiliaries, which would be destined to regions far from their home countries in order to make up the dwindling numbers of Roman Citizen soldiers. This access to many types of different military capability also allowed the Romans to mix and match their battle tactics according to need.
A number of different ancient Roman battle formations and battle tactics are discussed separately.
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