Were the Roman Legions actually as 'modern', 'well-trained' and 'disciplined' as some claim?

Dec 2019
3
India
When I was researching about military history on the internet, I found very little information on eastern warfare, but plenty on western warfare. What caught my eye was many websites claiming how the Roman legions were like modern armies, very well trained and disciplined. Though I did not found out much information about the type of training they received, most came from Vegetius. Many information about tactics came from Polybius and Villy, but I am asking about the legions being 'well-trained' and 'disciplined.' They also claimed that Roman army was superior to every other army in the world and remained so in 'training and discipline' till early modern times.
But, the sources on ancient history are very likely to be exaggerated or wrong, and Roman Military often to me seem exaggerated and pushing some Roman propaganda. Rome received much praise in the Renaissance era and the period after the fall of the Empire was labelled to be 'dark', which we now know was not really so dark. So I doubted the much praise given to the Legions.
Formation fighting was common throughout the world, much before the Roman Empire even came into being. The warfare in Europe during middle ages was not just centered around knights and 'CHARGE!', there were many good strategies used in medieval times and some form of training and 'drill' was used, the armies then too marched long distances, and it did not require them to train for the long period of time like Roman Legions did as many websites claim. Even the description of their military training in many sources sounds exaggerated and is often unclear on how exactly the trained, when they trained like that, and who trained like that. I think that the Romans developed a standing army to fend off constant military threats that the Empire faced during these times, out of necessity. They trained mostly in the same formation and tactics they used before the army was 'professionalized', and I doubt they even needed '4-month training' as some websites claim. Therefore, my question is, is it true that the Roman Legion was as 'modern', 'well trained', and 'professional' as it is claimed?
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,459
Portugal
When I was researching about military history on the internet, I found very little information on eastern warfare, but plenty on western warfare. What caught my eye was many websites claiming how the Roman legions were like modern armies, very well trained and disciplined. Though I did not found out much information about the type of training they received, most came from Vegetius. Many information about tactics came from Polybius and Villy, but I am asking about the legions being 'well-trained' and 'disciplined.' They also claimed that Roman army was superior to every other army in the world and remained so in 'training and discipline' till early modern times.
But, the sources on ancient history are very likely to be exaggerated or wrong, and Roman Military often to me seem exaggerated and pushing some Roman propaganda. Rome received much praise in the Renaissance era and the period after the fall of the Empire was labelled to be 'dark', which we now know was not really so dark. So I doubted the much praise given to the Legions.
Formation fighting was common throughout the world, much before the Roman Empire even came into being. The warfare in Europe during middle ages was not just centered around knights and 'CHARGE!', there were many good strategies used in medieval times and some form of training and 'drill' was used, the armies then too marched long distances, and it did not require them to train for the long period of time like Roman Legions did as many websites claim. Even the description of their military training in many sources sounds exaggerated and is often unclear on how exactly the trained, when they trained like that, and who trained like that. I think that the Romans developed a standing army to fend off constant military threats that the Empire faced during these times, out of necessity. They trained mostly in the same formation and tactics they used before the army was 'professionalized', and I doubt they even needed '4-month training' as some websites claim. Therefore, my question is, is it true that the Roman Legion was as 'modern', 'well trained', and 'professional' as it is claimed?
Hy Abirra, I see that this is your first post, welcome to Historum!

You bring here a main question and some side questions. There are people here with more knowledge about the Roman army than I, but let me give you my perspective to launch the theme:

About the Sources:

You mentioned here Vegetius and Polybius, and those are two good sources among many. Fortunately, the Romans gave us plenty of sources to work, considering their timeline, even if they are never enough. I don’t know who is Villy. Maybe a typo. Pliny?

“The sources on ancient history are very likely to be exaggerated or wrong”, but that is why we have the historical method and source criticism, to try to understand when they are correct, wrong, or simply exaggerated.

About the net sites and potential Roman propaganda:

There are apologists of many past armies, and Rome’s army is certainly one of them, but if we restrict our readings to academic ones, the number of apologists falls significantly.

About the timeline:

Rome’s army lasted more than a millennium, from a warband of road robbers, to a phalanx, to the Legion, to a mercenary army, to a decadent army. It is a long timeline. What is true for a period can be false for another, so generalizations can be erroneous.

So for some time periods, I think we can consider them “well trained” and “professional”, about “modern”, that is more debatable, depending the meaning that you give to the word. In my dictionary the Modern Period begin around the arrival of Columbus to America and Vasco da Gama to India: History of the world - Wikipedia

Anyway, there are plenty of historiography about the theme. From the light approach of the Osprey books, to the more academic (Adrian Goldsworthy is in my shelf and comes to my mind).
 
Sep 2012
1,644
London, centre of my world
Welcome to Historum, Abirra.

You don't get to conquer and hold the territory that was the Roman Empire by luck.
The legionaries were mostly volunteers; to form even the keenest recruit into part of a cohesive fighting unit takes training, discipline, esprit de corps etc. Not unlike every other army in history really. There is the old maxim, 'Train Hard, Fight Easy', and it works.
The difference I think is that the Roman culture was a martial one, all men were expected to serve, and that the army was always adaptable. Fighting elephants? Open the ranks. Fighting a phalanx? Use missiles and moving block formations. Short on cavalry? Hire the locals.
Within its ranks were plenty of 'career soldiers', so there can be no doubt that the army was a professional one, and you would always need to bear in mind that by the time the Roman Empire stopped expanding, there were no comparable military forces on the edges, with the Persians/Sassanians being the only exception.

I agree that Roman propaganda was never one of modest credit. But it's like the old boast, 'It ain't bragging if you can back it up'.
The medieval styles of warfare you use to compare was fought by trained men as you say; the knights learned from a young age about warfare and fighting; although it was a different system to the Roman one, the aim was the same, but armies in those times were smaller, no-one ruled over a similar number of people as the Romans and to those in those times, the Roman Empire was almost a mythical entity.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,978
Dispargum
There are several instances of the Roman Army being defeated in the first battles of a war, but then they get they got their act together and won the final battles of the war. The reason the Romans found the first battles so difficult is that in between wars they, like so many armies through history, often forgot the rigors of war and let peacetime routine become the priority. The Roman Army was often the most convenient source of manpower available to the state. Public works projects like roads and aqueducts were often built by the army in between wars. But an army that builds roads isn't practicing the use of weapons or other skills needed on the battlefield. The Roman Army was also used as policemen, firemen, and for ceremonial duties such as honor guards. In between wars officers were usually promoted for their ability to catch criminals, put out fires, or to put on a parade, not for winning battles. When a war came along, there were often some hard lessons that needed to be re-learned.

I would agree that at the end of a long war the Roman Army could be quite proficient. Depending on how long it had been since the last war, much of that proficiency could be gone. One must also realize that level of proficiency would vary from one legion to the next. Roman wars tended to be local. A few legions in Gaul may have just concluded a successful war at the same time that the legions in the Balkans may have enjoyed many years of peace time service.

At the very least, the Romans had institutionalized their tactics and training methods. While these traditions were often forgotten in peace time, they could usually be recalled and re-instituted when wars began.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,069
MD, USA
Part of the problem is that much of our mental image of the Romans was painted by Victorians, so we get this picture of rigid lines of silent robotic soldiers (in red!), marching in lockstep, Yes Sir, No Sir, etc. But going back to the sources gives a much different impression. There was certainly training and route marching and ditch-digging, but the rather harsh discipline seems more aimed at just keeping some control over a mass of highly-motivated psychotic armored knife-fighters. They wanted to kill, and the trick was keeping them organized long enough to get properly deployed, then turning them loose.

Also, while modern militaries still study the Romans for their organization, there was a lot about their army which was not modern at all. It was very "organic", and evolved in a non-systematic way. And there are lots of things we *think* we know about them that turn out to have little or no basis in fact.

I can't resist saying that it's amusing how often we get questions along these lines, why do we think the Roman army was all that great because it's just propaganda (or fan-boyism!), etc. And I always like to ask, Then why are you still so afraid of them? ;) Yes, we DO need to avoid just parroting the latest in Victorian research, and get away from a lot of old assumptions. The legions were far from invincible at any time. BUT, as has been pointed out, they worked! If the Roman military system wasn't successful overall, there wouldn't have been a Roman empire.

Matthew
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,586
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Logistics and engineering were the victory keys of the legions. Not only training and discipline. Roman's used muscles, but also their brain. And they used it a lot. Think to Caesar: he and his commander had to organize a wide amphibious assault. They did it, even no one knew what an amphibious assault was for real.

And Caesar understood also the importance to use artillery to cover the landing troops. He substantially introduced Amphibious Assault Ships with artillery ...

We will never know what would have been the Mediterranean region if Carthage enjoyed a similar flexibility...
 
Dec 2019
3
India
Great response by many people here. I never thought the Roman Military system did not work, I just thought much information about their training and effectiveness is propaganda and as some people pointed out some of it was, but the Legion does deserve the praise it gets. That they did had a good system of training and organization, like other great militaries(Mauryan, Chinese, Assyrians, Mongols etc.) in history with which they were successful in their conquests.
 
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sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,633
Sydney
It took Europe thirteen centuries before armies had an equivalent logistics and engineers branches
the Roman Legions was a well run machine , the NCO and Officers were usually excellent
often they met opponents who were more aggressive , smarter and tougher than them ,
quite often they would get their heads served on a platter
but they would simply dust themselves , raise new troops ,train , integrate them and win