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The organizational powers of legionaries and the army of the regular Roman Legions during the Roman Republic

Updated on July 17, 2013
Senātus Populusque Rōmānus ("The Senate and People of Rome")
Senātus Populusque Rōmānus ("The Senate and People of Rome") | Source

How did the Roman legions help to gain and then consolidate the rule during Roman Republic?


The Roman legions are famous worldwide for many reasons, such as their modern warfare technology (for that era), their tactics and leaders. Their organizational power and discipline helped The Roman Republic not only to become very influential in the whole of Europe and North Africa but also later to consolidate the immense territories of the Republic. The Republican army of Rome had a completely different organization than the Imperial form of legions. In order to present an understandable concept of how the legion helped the Republic gained and consolidate their power , an exact picture of their organizational power and discipline but be shown.

The Roman Republic, the replacement of the Roman monarchy dated to have been founded around the year 509BCE, had a government led by two consuls, which would be chosen every year by the free citizens of Rome and they would be advised by the senate. The Roman Republic flourished during the reign of Octavian August, whom reformed the politics making himself a Principate, or Rome' first citizen. These reforms later leading to the destruction of the Roman Republic and the founding of the Empire.

The Republican legions were formed after major reforms in the Roman armed forces after loses against the Celts during the years 320 -300BCE. According to sources such as Polybius the armies legions consisted of five main squads. The Cavalry, the smallest part of a legion was made up from the wealthiest citizens which could afford to maintain and care for horses. This unit would be around 300 cavalry soldiers. The other four parts of a legion would all be infantry – One light infantry uni and three heavy. The light infantry unit were the poorest among the warriors, and were called Velites. They were used by their commanders and leaders as scouts and skirmisher as they were expendable and the largest group of soldiers. The three squad of heavy infantry as stated by Livy are the Hastati, Principes and Triarii. The first line consisted of the Hastati and they were armed with long spears for long range attack, known as a “pilum”, and short sword for close quarter combat called “gladius”. The second line of a legion would be the Principes and would be armed exactly as the Hastati but in comparison to them, they were much more experienced and they would often carry out the command - “Steady the line”. The last, third line was made up from the veterans – the Triarri. They also owned the same equipment but different sources state that they had longer spears. These three lines formed themselves into ten “maniples”.

Other immensely important parts of the legions structure and work were discipline, tactics, and amount of soldiers. Livy states in his work “The history of Rome” that during a battle against the Latin levy four legions were called, each consisting of five thousand infantry and one normal cavalry unit of three hundred. He also vividly describes their many formations and tactics, such as the formation “triplex acies” in which the heavy infantry would back up each other by filling in the gaps between the separate squads making it resemble a chess board. The light infantry or the cavalry would often be used for flanking tactics and were called the “alae” of a legion (the wings). Discipline – the famous means of the generals and leaders to create order in a force. The Roman found that discipline is the path to victory. Titus livius gives and example of this severe discipline through punishments states:

...by your punishment, the military discipline which has been subverted by your misconduct. Go, lictor, bind him to a stake. All became motionless, more through fear than discipline, astounded by so cruel an order, each looking on the axe as if drawn against himself.

Livy maybe even points out a flaw in the Roman Republics way of bringing law and order to its armies. He states that the legionnaires are disciplined through fear and the possibility of them also receiving a such a cruel punishment if an order or law is broken. Although these intial reform were not quite successful as the late reforms, known as “Marius' Reforms”.

General Gaius Marius – the uncle of the famous Julius Caeser and later after his ascent into Roman politics – Roman commander in chief for Africa. After he gained this vital position he started reforming, a what now was a army defeated many times ,after the initial reforms, by proto-Germanic tribes.

His first achievement was the abolition of qualfictaions to be able to fight for the Republic. He recruited soldiers with no regard to land ownership as the need for new legions grew after the wish to have a successful war in Northern Africa. He created an army of massive size mainly consisting of peasants (of which there were many in that era). These poor people now had a job and depended on their leader to supple them with wages and land. The greatest change now being that the legion were no more loyal to Rome but to their generals. The more successful a General was, the more loyal the soldier became, because after successful conquests followed by plundering and ravaging a town, the land and money became the soldier's property, thus increasing the loyalty of a warrior.

Other of Marius' reform were the change in equipment and tactics. He removed the Velites and Cavalry and equipped all soldiers identically just like the old Heavy Infantries. In tactics, Marius abolished the maniples

and now a legion consisted of ten cohorts divided into six centuries with eighty men. Also the alae were taken away. His last significant change was the allowance of promotion within ranks, increasing yet again loyalty and the motivation to fight and understanding in between the troops.

In conclusion, during the Roman Republic era many different changes were made in the organization, tactics and equipment of the Roman soldier. The reforms beginning in the later 300 years BCE after the initial Roman army suffered many defeats against the Celts. These reforms were mainly organizational, creating different sub-units within the legions. The greatest and most significant reforms in the legion came into being after Marius was elected Commander in chief of the war in Africa. His reforms totally changed the look and efficiency of the Republican armies by increasing numbers, simplifying organization and using modern techniques. Thus creating a more efficient and successful army with which the Roman Republic conquered more territories and later consolidated their power over the conquered lands.

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