Episode 31: Men of Iron: The Polybian Roman Legion

In this second of three special episodes, we take an in-depth look at the Roman army which fought the majority of the Punic Wars – its equipment, formations, and most importantly, the fighting ethos which animated the men within it. What was the key to the Roman’s success? Superior discipline? A flexible fighting style? Not so. Although these things contributed to Roman success, it was Roman virtus balanced by disciplina which gave the legionary his edge. Photos and further reading recommendations below!

Legion 1
The Polybian Roman Legion arranged in its Triplex Acies formation. In the front, the velites would skirmish with the enemy lines before falling back behind the first rank of hastati. If the hastati could not break the enemy, then they would retreat through the intervals between maniples until they were behind the second line held by the fresh principes. If the principes grew weary, they too would fall back and allow the triarii to come to grips with the enemy in their phalanx formation. In the rear you can see the Consul overseeing the Legion while the Roman cavalry holds the flanks.
Aerial Legion
An aerial photo of the Legion arranged in their triplex acies chequerboard formation.
Made up of the poorest and youngest members of the Legion, the velites – meaning “fast men” – primarily skirmished with the enemy lines before battle with javelins and shields. However, they were not afraid to close with the enemy and fight hand-to-hand, wearing wolfskins so their commanders could mark their virtus.
The hastati formed the first line of the Legion behind the velites. More heavily-armored than their lighter cousins, these men fought with the scutum shield, gladius sword, and two throwing pilum. If wealthy enough, they also wore greaves and some form of defensive armor, most often a rectangular bronze plate across their mid-chest. (Pardon the dust on these photos – I suppose these guys are overdue for being pulled out for a game!)
The principes – “first men” – formed the second line of the Legion. Composed of soldiers in the prime of life, these men were likely correspondingly wealthier, and many would doubtless wear chainmail coats. Otherwise, they fought in a very similar manner to the hastati, relieving the latter through the gaps in the line if the hastati failed to break the enemy.
Holding the final line of the Legion, the triarii – “third rankers” – were the oldest and most veteran troops of the Roman army. Unlike the hastati and triarii, these men retained the “hasta” spear of the phalanx in addition to their gladius and scutum, and they fought in phalanx formation. If the battle had “come to the triarii,” the situation was dire indeed.
Approximately half of each Roman Legion was actually made up of Italian allies from the 150 Latin cities surrounding Rome. These men fought in a similar manner to their Roman comrades but likely retained their own identifying symbols.
Each Legion at paper strength would be accompanied by approximately 300 Roman cavalry. Actually, nearly 75% of the horsemen in the Roman army was supplied by Roman allies. Although the Romans never held a fantastic reputation as cavalrymen, recent scholarship has attempted to rehabilitate their reputation as fighters.
Six military tribunes (not to be confused with the political tribunes) served with each Legion. Typically made up of younger aristocrats, these men would aid the Consuls in directing the lower officers and troops.
The Consul held the highest Roman military and political rank. In the field, these generals had almost unlimited power over their men – in theory. In reality, they often had to bow to the will of the soldier’s under them in matters of strategy and tactics. This Consul is accompanied by a bodyguard of Lictors – men who bore the fasces and executed judgments on offenders.

Recommended further reading:

Soldiers and Ghosts by J.E. Lendon

The Complete Roman Army by Adrian Goldsworthy

Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s Unoffical Manual by Philip Matyszak

Download: Episode 31 – Men of Iron: The Polybian Roman Legion

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