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

Oct 2018
1,736
Sydney
It seems to me that the romans never did really did have good cavalry... this lead to hiring various cavalry savy "nationalities" (e.g. numidians) to try and address that weakness.... Still every time they faced a force heavy in good cavalry throughout their history (Hannibal, Parthians, Attila just to name a few) they suffered....
Against Hannibal and Attila, sure, but despite their initial performance at Carrhae, the Parthians lost against the Romans more often than they won. While the Sasanian Persians won some notable successes against the Romans, they too suffered their fair share of defeats. At Singara in 344 the Roman infantry defeated a Persian cataphract attack with maces, and we know that Palestinian troops under Aurelian used the same tactic against the cataphracts of Zenobia at Emesa in 272, which were either Persian units or Roman units. In the third century AD you get 'ethnic' cavalry units - specifically the Dalmatian and Moorish cavalry - that were highly competent against fellow Romans, Goths, and, again, Zenobia's cataphracts, but by this time these cavalrymen would have been Roman citizens. But certainly the Romans did make use of foreign cavalry units.
 

Theodoric

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,959
Yötebory Sveriya
1572278556363.png
I know the fourth century Roman army was likely where the numbers peaked, but I always assumed it was during the era of Constantine, this graph (I found at source: ANCIENT ROMAN ARMY | Facts and Details) puts it at the reign of Theodosius and Stilicho. Although, this doesn’t necessarily say much about the power since even if this is true the Empire needed a far larger stationary defensive force than in the past. The field armies were the true usable strength. Stilicho pulling defensive forces in the early fifth was controversial enough to justify the execution of him and his family.
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
13,958
I would say that a strength of Republican aristocratic society was the fact that Roman senatorial families placed a great deal of value in military accomplishment. An ideal Roman aristocrat wins a great victory, and then the next generation of his family hopefully wins an even greater military victory, and so on. For an example of these values, note the inscription on the sarcophagus of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, consul in 298 BC: 'Cornelius Lucius Scipio Barbatus, sprung from Gnaeus his father, a man strong and wise, whose appearance was most in keeping with his virtue, who was consul, censor, and aedile among you - He captured Taurasia Cisauna in Samnium - he subdued all of Lucania and led off hostages.'

During the Middle Republic Roman senators generally only had a year (the year of their consulship) to win that big victory, which led to hyper-aggressive behaviour. This could lead to disaster against a clever enemy (thus the defeats to Hannibal), but generally it was beneficial, since Roman commanders were bold and took chances. Note the example of the First Punic War. The Carthaginian generals enjoyed multi-year commands but generally got very little done. They were too cautious - they acted complacent and were probably also fearful of the cost of failure (crucifixion). It was the Roman generals who initiated battles on land and at sea, and who won victories and captured cities.

As for the imperial period, propaganda presented the idea that emperors were responsible for the safety and military victories of the Roman Empire. There was a widespread association of emperors with victory on coins and inscriptions, very popular in imperial coinage and actually the most prevalent theme in local coinage. Imperator (Commander) was a part of their titulature, and Virtus (manly courage, often in a military context) was a prevalent imperial virtue. In the third and (to a lesser extent) the fourth centuries, the need to have good military credentials and continue being militarily accomplished trascended propaganda and became a very real part of being a successful emperor. If an emperor failed to prove their worth in war they could be (and often were) killed by their own soldiers or a general-turned-usurper. Such a situation could encourage a pro-active approach to warfare. An excellent book on this topic: Hebblewhite, M. 2017: The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire, AD 235-395.
The issue though, unless I am mistaken, is that the romans had no military academies to speak of... thus it was not possible to identify military talent early on, and the roman system basically relied on chance (conversely, as a famous example, Napoleon joined a military academy at age 10 ).... I wonder why they did not come up with that idea given their large military
 
Oct 2018
1,736
Sydney
The issue though, unless I am mistaken, is that the romans had no military academies to speak of... thus it was not possible to identify military talent early on, and the roman system basically relied on chance (conversely, as a famous example, Napoleon joined a military academy at age 10 ).... I wonder why they did not come up with that idea given their large military
Yeah, the concept of military academies is quite a modern concept, but in times of crisis merit did play a role in who received military commands. In the case of the Second Punic War the most militarily experienced and/or successful magistrates were retained in the field (Fabius, Marcellus, Scipio the Elder, Scipio Calvus, Scipio Africanus, Laevinus, Flaccus and Gracchus). In the third century AD we witness the meteoric careers of non-senatorial military officers, with some becoming emperors (e.g. Aurelian, Diocletian), a pattern that would seem in part related to merit.
 

Theodoric

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,959
Yötebory Sveriya
View attachment 24215
I know the fourth century Roman army was likely where the numbers peaked, but I always assumed it was during the era of Constantine, this graph (I found at source: ANCIENT ROMAN ARMY | Facts and Details) puts it at the reign of Theodosius and Stilicho. Although, this doesn’t necessarily say much about the power since even if this is true the Empire needed a far larger stationary defensive force than in the past. The field armies were the true usable strength. Stilicho pulling defensive forces in the early fifth was controversial enough to justify the execution of him and his family.
I’m going to add to my above post by saying that it might now be the full story. I am unsure if that list combines the Western forces into the Eastern ones, or if it simply discounts them entirely. If the latter, then the later 4th and 5th century forces are underestimated.

Really, nothing changed in 476 except the elimination of what was ultimately a ceremonial position. It did not disband the Western Senate, the troops, the magistrates, and the federates; they were still all there and they would have certainly been Roman. While the Western Roman Empire can fairly be said to have been gone, it is equally as fair to say that there was still the Roman Empire in the West. Some guy’s Voltaire inspired theories may say one way, but the evidence says otherwise, and we as individuals still have the capacity to think and criticize the status quo. Just my thought on the subject that I wandered off into a rant on.


EDIT
Small clarification, most academics actually know this. “Really nothing changed in 476 for the vast majority of the Empire,” they’ll say. But many of them will still operate in all of their other discussions as though everything changed in 476, so that clarification becomes ultimately meaningless.
 
Last edited:

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,325
Click to expand...
As I pointed out earlier, Adrianople is a rarity even by late Roman standards and occurred towards the end of the fourth century when a decline was starting to become evident. What I'm saying is that from the middle Republic to the mid-fourth century the Roman army was the top dog in its part of the world, and their victory-to-defeat metric against foreign enemies proves that. As everyone in this thread probably recognizes, there are numerous reasons for that: money, population of empire, mentality, discipline, organization, tactics, victory culture
But that depends on the state of the legion in question. There is documentary evidence (whichI have posted regularly elsewhere on this forum) of legions in a catastrophic state of unpreparedness. Syria for instance, where we hear of legionaries drunk on duty, ignoring their post, quite dismissive of authority. We have Corbulo reaching Syria to take command of military forces to march on Armenia, only to find legionaries who have done no basic military duties at all. You cannot judge a military force solely by its successes.

Whilst I agree on the ability of Rome to rise to challenges during the period in question, the fact remains that legions were usually at a low level of readiness at the onset on campaigning and often found themselves defeated, necessitating a stronger, more able leadership - which makes all the difference. Please realise that the senior officers of legionary strength were not career military men as we understand them today. For the most part, they were patricians/senators seeking important service kudos for their political careers, or else (and possibly more prevalent), men who considered garrison duties in far off provinces rather safer than politics in Rome.

Further, it is wrong to attribute modern expectations of legionary preparedness. The wonderful descriptions of what a legion ought to be doing in Vegetius' De Re Militaris is not a manual of how things were done - it was, as the author admits in his preamble, his ideas of what a legion ought to be by dredging up examples of what he considered good practice from historical anecdotes. In other words, legionary training was not exactly a standard activity. What actually happened depended on circumstance and who was running the legion.

The mentality of Roman legionaries probably wasn't much different from anyone else.

A Roman soldier will face any trial except stare a Persian in the face
Labenius
 
  • Like
Reactions: Theodoric
Nov 2014
1,669
Birmingham, UK
It's impressive that despite a high turnover of rulers through the mid-late third century, the Romans still succeeded in recruiting, funding and innovating to create an army more than equal to the evolving threats they faced.
what were the most important innovations made, in your view?
 
Oct 2018
1,736
Sydney
The fact that Roman soldiers could on occasion be mutinous or insubordinate, and yet Roman armies were still predominantly victorious over foreign enemies goes to show that the Roman military indeed dominated. As Benzev noted above, it's fascinating really that Roman armies supported so many usurpations and fought so many civil wars during the late third century and yet were still adapting and still superior in conflict against foreign enemies.

Now, while the winning of battles and wars is for me the most important measure of an army's merit vis-à-vis its rivals, I of course am willing to discuss possible deficiencies of the Roman army. But I would also need some statistics to agree that they were 'usually at a low level of readiness'. Certainly, Roman soldiers could act lawlessly around civilians, especially when they were requisitioning supplies, but the idea that the legions in Syria were soft and ill-disciplined is a prejudice of the time. Rhine and especially Danube soldiers were stereotyped as strong and hardy. They were good agrarian soldiers of the soil, an idea related to the ancient romanticization of the farmer-soldier. Soldiers in the east, on the other hand, were considered soft because a) they were garrisoned in cities, which ancient authors exaggerated as a corrupting influence (thus, e.g., Livy's claim that Hannibal's personal Cannae was garrisoning his soldiers in Capua - something that holds little weight among modern scholars), and b) they were exposed to the luxuries and effeminacy of the east.

"Please realise that the senior officers of legionary strength were not career military men as we understand them today. For the most part, they were patricians/senators seeking important service kudos for their political careers, or else (and possibly more prevalent), men who considered garrison duties in far off provinces rather safer than politics in Rome." - I was talking about the third century, for which such a statement doesn't hold true. Career soldiers dominated the Roman military during the third century. And certainly they didn't attend military academies, and some did cross over into or from civil offices, but they were as close to being military professionals as one could be in the ancient world. On this subject I can recommend:

Devijver, H. 1992: The Equestrian Officers of the Roman Imperial Army 2. Mavors: Roman Army Researches 9, Stuttgart.

Heil, M. 2008: Der Ritterstand, in Johne, Hartmann & Gerhardt, Die Zeit der Soldaten-Kaiser. Krise und Transformation des Römischen Reiches im 3. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (235-284), Berlin, 2.737-762.

Mennen, I. 2011: Power and Status in the Roman Empire, AD 193-284. Impact of Empire 12, Leiden & Boston.

Pflaum, H. -G. 1976: Zur Reform des Kaisers Gallienus, Historia 25, 109-117.

On the savage mentality of Roman soldiers, see post 27 by @Matthew Amt in Intensity and Duration of fighting in Ancient & Medieval Battles.
 
Last edited:
Mar 2018
870
UK
But that depends on the state of the legion in question. There is documentary evidence (whichI have posted regularly elsewhere on this forum) of legions in a catastrophic state of unpreparedness. Syria for instance, where we hear of legionaries drunk on duty, ignoring their post, quite dismissive of authority. We have Corbulo reaching Syria to take command of military forces to march on Armenia, only to find legionaries who have done no basic military duties at all. You cannot judge a military force solely by its successes.

Whilst I agree on the ability of Rome to rise to challenges during the period in question, the fact remains that legions were usually at a low level of readiness at the onset on campaigning and often found themselves defeated, necessitating a stronger, more able leadership - which makes all the difference. Please realise that the senior officers of legionary strength were not career military men as we understand them today. For the most part, they were patricians/senators seeking important service kudos for their political careers, or else (and possibly more prevalent), men who considered garrison duties in far off provinces rather safer than politics in Rome.

Further, it is wrong to attribute modern expectations of legionary preparedness. The wonderful descriptions of what a legion ought to be doing in Vegetius' De Re Militaris is not a manual of how things were done - it was, as the author admits in his preamble, his ideas of what a legion ought to be by dredging up examples of what he considered good practice from historical anecdotes. In other words, legionary training was not exactly a standard activity. What actually happened depended on circumstance and who was running the legion.

The mentality of Roman legionaries probably wasn't much different from anyone else.

A Roman soldier will face any trial except stare a Persian in the face
Labenius
I'm afraid I still don't get what point you are trying to make. You're stating independent facts about the Roman military, but to what end?

The legions were by no means perfect. And even in the later Imperial period when they were professional, they were far less professional than what any modern (European, at least) army would demand of even raw recruits. This is important to note. But it doesn't change the fact that - despite all these flaws - the Roman army from ~250 BC to ~350AD was extremely successful against a wide range of foes. That is what this thread was discussing.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,325
The problem is basically one of preconception. Firstly, we're guided by our ideas of modern military expectations and please note how easily people compare ancient and modern in that context. Secondly, a great deal of commentary on the legions starts from the idea of their military excellence. Well, they were certainly capable of making an impression, yet documentary evidence suggests this was not uniform. After all, they did not even have uniform appearance in the manner we typically portray them - shield shapes varied between legions and in one source (Stratagems by Frontinus if I recall correctly) a legate criticises a soldier for his elaborate painting of his shield - "He cares more for his shield than his sword"

Since the Roman legions were not regiments of an army organisation (they were all independent packets of military power assigned to politicians to further security) we ought to look closer at relative performance and loyalty, important issues to them politically but less to us when enthusing about excellence.

Thirdly, concerning discipline. In modern terms we expect "organised good manners". Observance of rank and authority, esprit de corps, behaviour (though we all know soldiers have a tendency to misbehave :D). In Roman terms, their discipline was harsh and not always consistent. Basically they wanted obedience and steadfastness. usually, as with most pre-20th century militaries, they got what they wanted because the soldier was more afraid of punishment than misbehaving. Nonetheless, the sources are quite clear. Roman soldiers did rout. One of the tasks a senior officer concerned himself with in battle was not necessarily directing them, but standing behind a wavering unit pushing men back into line (Caesar describes this in his Gallic War commentaries). A leader might well fight in the front line alongside his men.

Still, we can see why this mattered. A Roman legionary can be executed for refusing an order. He can be flogged for petty offences. Their regime, as Josephus confirms, became one of constant practise when legions were properly led. But were they the best? More difficult, because our impressions of Roman soldiers are from the Romans themselves. We have little comparative evidence.

I'm reminded of an anecdote from Plutarch. During the fighting in Britain a legionary spotted a group of centurions under threat from British warriors. He ran to their rescue across the marsh, dropping his shield (a serious punishable offence) and saving the day. Caesar saw what happened and summoned the man to him. The soldier arrived and dropped to his knees, begging for mercy. Caesar wanted only to congratulate him for his bravery.