Early Latin/Roman Warfare

Sep 2017
United States
Hey, does anyone know much about early warfare on the Italian Peninsula? I mean pre-Republic, like the early tribes.

I've read at one point they adopted hoplite-esque heavy armor from Greek colonies in Sicily, which eventually led to the Roman soldiers we all know and love, but anything before that I can't find much about.

What were their equipment, strategies, etc?


Forum Staff
Oct 2009
IIRC correctly the Romans traded hoplite-style warfare for the Samnite/legionary style in the 4th Century BCE, either as a result of the 390 BCE Gaulish invasion by Brennus and the Senones, or else because of conflict with the Samnites themselves.


Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
Before that you have bronze age raiders in small groups. Tall pot style helmets, a flat chest plate worn by straps around the shoulders and waist, and if the warrior could afford them, forearm and shin protectors. Shields were either oval or round, some leaf shaped with a spine down the middle. Warfare of this type was heavily interlaced with religion and actions often led by priests.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2016
Equipment wise, the scutum style shield is older in Italy than the Aspis/Clipeus shield, though it was never popular among the elite warriors of the early Roman tribal bands. The best guess is most of their fighting focused on raids, burning lands, defending lands from being burned, stealing cattle, defending cattle from being stolen, that sort of thing.

Likely the elite warriors wore lots of bronze armor, bronze shields, they formed the front ranks while the lesser tribal warriors of lower classes formed up behind them to either support them or to cast missiles (which also seems to be the history of how the Greeks developed the hoplite). Villanovan military culture. Infantry centric shield wall combat developed since these were sedentary farmers needing to defend territory and could not maneuver away from terrain they needed to defend, Latin peoples as a whole were infantry centric, the horse people weren't really encountered until they later started fighting Campanians and Gauls (whose elite were often mounted), and when they were encountered the Romans adopted cavalry but as a supporting arm only.

The Etruscan city states were more developed than early Roman kingdom and likely dominated them, at the very least supplying many of Rome's early kings. The Etruscans weren't Greek but liked many Greek things, methods of warfare among them. Which began the Greek influence on Roman warfare, as the Roman elite would copy the Etruscan elite who in turn copied the Greek elite, eventually as Roman trade blossomed and they encountered the stories of the Greeks success, they directly copied from them too. This is likely where the aspis and early hoplite tactics comes into play.

The strength of the Hellenic hoplite came from a cohesive shield wall, heavy infantry mutually supporting one another, to defend key terrain to prevent an enemy from laying waste to crops or cities. These fights were usually conducted on flattish open plains, often against other hoplite armies who fought in a near identical cultural manner. Even a basic system of rules seems to have born out among the Greeks of the 6th-4th Cent BC.

The problems the Romans faced were two fold. Gauls and Samnites, neither of which fought very much like a Greek hoplite. The Gauls launched ferocious infantry centric battles where their elite and fearless naked warriors would literally fling themselves at the run into a shield wall to break through it. And they were not adverse to conducting flanking maneuvers, of the sort that broke Rome's hoplite-ish army at the battle of the Allia. A hoplite force is a single line, single lines that are broken have nothing behind them to protect them. This tactical problem is likely what stemmed the Romans from breaking their heavy infantry up from a single thick phalanx to numerous lines of slightly thinner ones.

Next came the Samnites. These were mountainous people living among the Apennines south of Rome and Latina. Their elite carried Greek styled arms and armor, but did not apparently fight in rigid hoplite phalanx, largely due no doubt to their cultural tradition of fighting battles on the side of mountains, performing hit and run tactics, etc. So while they possessed the equipment necessary to fight from a shield wall, and might have occasionally, they also had the ability to fight in a looser formation, with more room between warriors, with gaps between units, that allowed them all to tranverse complex terrain while maintaining overall cohesion.

Add to this the cultural military traditions learned from others, more Gauls, Samnites, Lucanians, Bruttanians, Italic Greeks of Magna Graecia, Hellenic forces assisting them, Iberians, Celtiberians, and all sorts of various other enemy Rome would face over the next centuries morphed the Romans into the army that was described in detail by Polybius in the mid 2nd Cent BC.

Of course most of this is conjecture, not even the Romans of the late Republic knew their own true history, we don't either.

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
Osprey have done titles on the subject too.
Some Osprey books are good, such as Sumner's works, but most are terrible. You need a very good working knowledge of the subject before you can determine which of their books are worth reading. As an introduction to a subject, Osprey should be avoided at all costs.
Jan 2016
Victoria, Canada
Some Osprey books are good, such as Sumner's works, but most are terrible. You need a very good working knowledge of the subject before you can determine which of their books are worth reading. As an introduction to a subject, Osprey should be avoided at all costs.
I concur. I can't really comment on their other works, but their Byzantine books are terrible. Whoever designed them was of the type that takes artistic depictions at face value, labeling deliberately classicized byzantine depictions of biblical soldiers as "skutatoi" and the like. Many also perpetuate the myth that the Byzantines widely used splint armor, for which there is no evidence, and constantly over-represent the amount of armor that the average Byzantine soldier would wear.