Did the Roman Principate during the 2nd century field the best army in the world?

Nov 2014
412
ph
Was the Roman Army from Trajan to Septimus Severus that best army in the world, qualitatively speaking?
 
Sep 2019
36
Toronto
The Roman Empire does not exist anymore. Having said that, I never heard of Trajan to Septimus Severus. Are you sure you got the right battle? I thought you would say armies commanded by Julius Caesar were best or something like that, because the general was better.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,745
Australia
The Romans lost at least as many battles as they won. The key to Rome's success was its ability to come back again and again no matter how bad the defeat. Its other strength was the system's ability to produce just the right commander at just the right time.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,306
The Roman legions were variable in quality. An experienced legion under a strong capable commander was something to worry you, especially if they held the initiative.. If inexperienced, lacking good leaders, unpractised at military duties as some were, possibly in a low state of morale due to internal issues, and especially if the legion is ambushed in an unfavourable position, they would crumble quicker than many armies. But that said - please realise there was no actual Roman army. Legions were all separate entities allocated to politicians for the purpose of enforcing security.

Note Gaius Marius. he refused, under any provocation whatsoever, to engage in battle unless he felt the situation was favourable, and his record of victory was pretty good. Crassus was warned against a course of action in the east, advice he ignored, and was defeated utterly by an army tailored to frustrate the Roman tactics. Quintilius Varus ignored warnings about subterfuge and walked straight into an ambush. Three legions wiped out.
 
Oct 2018
1,506
Sydney
Was the Roman Army from Trajan to Septimus Severus that best army in the world, qualitatively speaking?
You can certainly say that, for this particular period, the Roman army hardly ever suffered defeat. Their numbers, organization, discipline and tactics ensured that they were considerably more formidable than the northern barbarians and Parthians of the time. But their superiority initially came about during the middle republic, and even during the Third Century Crisis Roman armies were usually victorious. While famous defeats like Cannae and Teutoberg Forest capture our fascination (in part because the underdogs won), actual defeats came few and far between.
 
Mar 2016
69
Germany
I would not say so. At least it is hard to judge. There were no real enemies of a similar weight to fight against during this period of time. The Parthians and later Sassanids, despite having a rather civilised organisatorical and technical niveau comparable to the Romans, were nevertheless not of the same strength and warfare was mostly local or at best regional. It was also a phase of weakness for the Parthians, so the Romans in the east were golden. The Romans under Trajan won with relative ease in the two Dacian Wars, but it was a very uneven fight, with nearly all advantages on the Roman side.

On the other hand the Romans had some difficulties in the Marcomannic Wars albeit being victorious in the end. Hardly the picture of the very best army of the world, in my opinion.

From then on all went down, slowly but constantly. The fall of the Roman Empire started in the second half of the 2nd c. AD, so if you want such strange competitions I would set the timeframe of Roman superiority from let's say 15 BC to 150 AD, although I rank the mid to late republic higher than the empire military, not per soldier but as a whole.

As said and luckily for the Romans real bad foes after about 70 AD were rare, being later the Sassanids and the growing Germanic confederations. But for a long time the Romans could fare well with an army more able to patrol and skirmish and deal with smaller, less trained and less well equipped adversaries. The worst for for the Romans were the Romans themselves, killing the empire with civil wars. Civil wars were not new, there had been a lot and bad ones, but the frequency of wars, the terrible and unsuccessful trials of the emperors to keep rivals and civil wars away by changing and weakening important structures, coupled with population loss, loss of wealth and loss of "Roman spirit" (a very subjective view of course) took it's toll. In the end we have the impressive Roman army of the late antiquity, said by it's fans to be bigger and more professional then ever before, however sadly we don't see them act sucessfully in the results.
 
Oct 2018
1,506
Sydney
I would argue that the late third to mid-fourth centuries attest to the ongoing high quality of the Roman army well after the second century. There were a few disasters against foreign enemies in the mid-third century (Misiche, Abrittus, Barbalissos, Edessa), and much earlier the Romans certainly didn't perform particularly decisively against the Marcomanni. These issues speak to the fact that, as you say, the Roman army of the first and second centuries faced fewer challenges than in earlier and later times. With regard to the situation in the third century, Rome had not faced such a multitude of significant enemies on multiple fronts since the third century BC. Rome thus had to adapt, and adapt they did, with the rise of larger cavalry components (incl. cataphracts), standing field armies, vexillations, a heavier use of pikes, etc. But the biggest problem for Rome was political instability, not foreign enemies. The challenges of the period reflect the issues of military loyalty and political legitimacy more than a military weakness vis-a-vis foreign armies. Indeed, the aforementioned adaptability of the Roman army (and also of Roman administration, ceremonial, taxation, etc) is what enabled the success of the Roman army and Roman state of the late third to mid-fourth centuries.

Traditionally, Gibbon and those who follow him have considered the story of the Roman Empire from the late second century onwards as one of long decline (seemingly a very long decline!). But the Crisis of the Third Century is arguably a success story. After internal and external shake-ups, there was a period of Roman armies seriously kicking ass under Gallienus, Postumus, Ballista, Odainath, Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, Carus, Diocletian, Maximian, Constantius, Galerius and Constantine, not to mention the reinvigoration of the Roman administration and economy. As Ross Cowan has recently asserted, far from being a period of inexorable breakdown, 'their era marks the climax of the traditional legionary system' (Roman Legionary, AD 284-337, p. 4), with Diocletian creating more legions than any emperor since Augustus. The Alemanni were pummeled, the Persians were chastised, the Goths were effectively neutered for a period of decades, Franks were reduced into vassalage, victories were won over Sarmatians, Vandals, Nubians and Carpi, and so forth.

Constantius II represents a change of sorts, being unwilling to commit his army to a large-scale expedition against the Persians, but his access to experienced manpower was limited, his empire being divided between himself and Constans in a manner that entailed both a hard division and, for a time, even an internal cold war. The Franks and Alemanni invaded Gaul in the 350s, but this was again enabled by political instability. Julian ensured a return to stability, with his army demonstrating its superiority at Strasbourg. He eventually got himself killed against the Persians, but this was in a skirmish that he rushed into with no armour, not a battle that entailed a major defeat for his army (in fact, in the one battle of this particular war Julian defeated the Persians). The situation of course did start to change in the late fourth and fifth centuries, but the collapse of the western empire was very much driven in a major way by, yet again, internal instability. Rome's biggest enemy was ultimately itself. But it appears to me that the Roman army of the third and fourth centuries was still unambiguously the top dog in its part of the world, admittedly in part because of available manpower, but also because of organization, discipline and tactics.

In the Second Punic War (3rd Century BC) the victory to defeat ratio was fairly even (that's Hannibal for you), and in the Cimbrian War (Second Century BC) the ratio favoured Roman defeat, but in the third and fourth centuries AD the ratio was very much in Rome's favour, despite the fame of certain defeats (Adrianople, Edessa, etc). Indeed, these defeats owe their fame in part to the fact that a) they were to some degree unexpected (of course a battle that saw an emperor get captured is more famous than Odainath's, Carus' or Galerius' victories over the same enemy), and b) because the teleological Gibbonesque approach to late Roman history, where one views things in terms of decline and fall, encourages one to think of how defeats like Adrianople influenced or represented the eventual fall of Rome, rather than how victories like Milan, Nessos, Naissus, Fano, Pavia, Satala, Strasbourg and so on influenced or represented the recovery of the Roman state and its surviveability/adaptability, which would allow the Roman state to chug on in the east for more than another millennium.

If we're talking about how did the imperial Roman army compare to, say, contemporary Han China, well I don't know, and I don't know how one would make a decision regarding that, so I'm only talking about the context of Rome and its neighbors.
 
Last edited:

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,963
MD, USA
I would not say so. At least it is hard to judge. There were no real enemies of a similar weight to fight against during this period of time.
In other words, the Roman army was better than its opponents, right? Are you trying to say they were *not* as good because they could beat everyone? Doesn't that make them the best?

The Parthians and later Sassanids, despite having a rather civilised organisatorical and technical niveau comparable to the Romans, were nevertheless not of the same strength and warfare was mostly local or at best regional. It was also a phase of weakness for the Parthians, so the Romans in the east were golden. The Romans under Trajan won with relative ease in the two Dacian Wars, but it was a very uneven fight, with nearly all advantages on the Roman side.
Having all the advantages makes your army better than the enemy, right? Though the historical record does not seem to support the idea that the Dacian Wars were a walkover, by any means.

On the other hand the Romans had some difficulties in the Marcomannic Wars albeit being victorious in the end. Hardly the picture of the very best army of the world, in my opinion.
Again, no one was suggesting they were invincible, and here you say they won in the end. So, the Roman army was BETTER. That's how they won.

From then on all went down, slowly but constantly. The fall of the Roman Empire started in the second half of the 2nd c. AD, so if you want such strange competitions I would set the timeframe of Roman superiority from let's say 15 BC to 150 AD, although I rank the mid to late republic higher than the empire military, not per soldier but as a whole.
Huh, that doesn't seem to agree with what I've heard--the army was at its largest in the 3rd century, with state-issued equipment from centralized factories, and training and discipline continued. That was the *height* of the empire, not its collapse. BUT that's not the era I know the best!

As said and luckily for the Romans real bad foes after about 70 AD were rare, being later the Sassanids and the growing Germanic confederations. But for a long time the Romans could fare well with an army more able to patrol and skirmish and deal with smaller, less trained and less well equipped adversaries.
Right, the Romans were militarily superior, or at least equal, along their whole border. Along with that, what other neighboring or nearby nation or culture was able to maintain a full-time standing army of that size, with continuous patrols and instant response to threats along thousands of miles of frontier? Anyone?

The worst for for the Romans were the Romans themselves, killing the empire with civil wars. Civil wars were not new, there had been a lot and bad ones, but the frequency of wars, the terrible and unsuccessful trials of the emperors to keep rivals and civil wars away by changing and weakening important structures, coupled with population loss, loss of wealth and loss of "Roman spirit" (a very subjective view of course) took it's toll. In the end we have the impressive Roman army of the late antiquity, said by it's fans to be bigger and more professional then ever before, however sadly we don't see them act sucessfully in the results.
So, in spite of the fact that the only real threat to the Roman army was another Roman army, and that they were able to build and maintain a huge empire for several centuries, you're convinced that army was pretty pathetic. Okayyyy....

Matthew
 
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Mar 2018
782
UK
It really depends on what you mean by army. If you mean the collective land armed forces, then yes. From sheer demographic and economic weight, that was no problem. However if you want to compare one Roman field army against an opposing army from some foe, and make the fight "fair" by adding the constraints that the armies are the same size, then it is less clear if the Romans will win.

It really depends if you want to compare the martial talent of individual roman soldiers/units/commanders/armies or state. On the biggest scale, then yes, the Romans were hands down the best of anyone in their vicinity. But how good were individual armies, or even units, as a function of the resources that were poured into them? That's much harder to judge. But frankly, the Romans won because of the top level organisation and political will to keep fighting, not so much because they had the most skilled soldiers.