Interesting Facets of the Military Might of Rome

We hear much of the Roman foot soldier who gave the firm base to the fame of the legions, but other branches of the Roman military machine were equally important and devastating in battle.

The Cataphractii and the Light Cavalry

The histories and legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table owe much to Roman cavalry tactics. The placement of Arthur (incorrectly) in the Middle Ages, derives from a mistaken understanding of the development of cavalry within the Saxon’s English British tribes, who were different to Britons.

In some of my novels, my characters say derisively that:

‘Britons ride horses, Saxons eat them!’

This statement was certainly true during the early years of the Saxon invasions of Britain. In fact, the thanes quickly took to horses, but the use of cavalry forces were a Roman technique which was even more remarkable because Rome had not, at that stage, invented the stirrup which would revolutionize horseback riding in the Medieval Period. Light and heavy cavalry, depending on the differences in armour, were fast and were capable of cutting individual squads of foot soldiers to ribbons. Meanwhile, the invading tribes such as the Hibernians, Saxons, Picts, Angles and Jutes were fighters who usually won renown through individual skills in combat, but they had no real answer to the British cavalry. In general, the mounted Legionnaires were able to defeat these individual warriors with relative ease.
In the latter days of the empire, allies of Rome like the Scythians and the Parthians were responsible for major improvements in cavalry tactics. The Scythians, in particular, were able to control their horses by the use of their heels and knees, a skill that allowed the rider’s hands to fire their small, extremely-powerful bows with deadly accuracy. The Scythian horsemen were reputed to have held their horse’s reins in their teeth.

Maximus was to learn to his cost that fast-moving light cavalry carrying bowmen could defeat his famed heavier cataphractii because the smaller animals held an advantage in manoeuvrability and speed. Lightning-fast raids became the barbarian contribution to Roman warfare as the overall influence of Rome began to recede and die. It is certain that the Britons learned these lessons well, and there is some evidence that the barbarian advance into Britannia was held off for a couple of generations along the western side of the Pennine Chain. This was probably due to the decision by the Dux Bellorum (Arthur?) to use British cavalry to stop the movement of barbarian tribes across the countryside.

The Use Of Bowmen

The Romans were not fools. They knew that the use of bowmen was a useful tool if they wanted to inflict casualties from a distance, when they needed to weaken an enemy before the engagement of disciplined troops. However, bowmen were never a significant part of Roman military strategy as such.
The Saxons had later heroes such as Robin Hood in the Medieval Period, and they praised these bowmen as an important part of their battle order. But they had been loath to use this strategy during their early incursions into Britannia. For them, the bow was the preserve of peasants and they were viewed as a cowardly means of fighting.

The Normans (Northerners) changed the face of warfare with their adoption of the crossbow, a weapon so fearsome that it was ruled by the Vatican to be the work of the devil. A bolt from a well-aimed crossbow could do the unthinkable. It could kill a king, a thane or a lord, no matter how well-armoured, just like the common soldiers. When fired en masse, the air was filled with the whirr of hundreds of bolts, a devastating rain that killed without discrimination.

The Seige Machines

Roman engineers and their construction techniques were a decided edge in the development and maintenance of the Western Roman Empire. The engineers were capable of building roads and bridges over rivers that permitted the generals to move troops quickly and efficiently. Similarly, the United States forces in Europe in WW2 used their engineers to build and destroy bridges, roads, dams, etcetera in the race to Berlin. But the Romans did it first, and they didn’t have the machinery available to the Americans to carry out their tasks.

As for machines, the Romans had quite an array at their disposal. Of course, the Romans hadn’t invented all of these machines of war, but they made the existing weapons far more devastating and effective.

Some items of interest included:

  • Battering rams.
  • Catapults.
  • Siege machines. Including versions that could be wheeled up to walls.
  • Various covered structures that protected sappers as they dug beneath walls.

These are simple structures. The web has many other examples of forward-thinking, devastating machines.

The Romans also used pitch, fire and specialised assault weapons, as well as rocks Fire was a tool that was appreciated by clever commanders. Certainly, hot oil inside armour was a devastating and terrifying tool of war, rather like the flame thrower of WW2.

In short, the difference between the Roman army and modern forces lies purely in the scale of the technology. At bottom, the Romans’ greatest claims to fame are not their art, their literature or their culture. For me, the Romans’ greatest claim to fame will always be:

  • Their public buildings.
  • Their ability to wage war.
  • Their bureaucracy.

Did You Know?

  1. Adolf Hitler insisted that famous fashion designers were to create the uniforms for the German army.
  2. Rome also had a navy that could move troops and machines quickly and efficiently.
  3. Roads were very important, both to the military and the bureaucracy. All Roman road were well-built, dead-straight, easily-maintained and are still visible all over Britain and Europe to this day.
  4. The Romans invented concrete, and the secret was lost for centuries after the fall of the Empire. The mixture of the formula must be have been very, very good, because most of their buildings, bridges, aqueducts, drains and sewers are still in use today.
  5. The Roman military provided their own surgeons and hospitals as a matter of course. Many of the tools used in surgery today have barely changed since Roman times.
  6. Roman cleanliness cut across the entire strata of society. Even the poor could find the copper coin charged for a bath. This practice assisted in Roman health. Conversely, the barbarian tribes rarely washed – and their health standards were much lower.
  7. Drinking water, unless the water came directly from a spring in the ground, was considered dangerous. NB. In 19th century Wales, the Temperance Groups died in greater numbers during times of disease and illness than those persons who drank alcohol. Their water could not be trusted.
  8. All Roman forts, even temporary structures, had four (4) gates facing each of the cardinal points of the compass.

In summary, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Where would we be now, if Rome and her civilization hadn’t been destroyed?