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

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
14,258
Everything is relative...

You dont need to run at the speed of light to win a race, you just need to run slightly faster than your opponents....

Likewise the roman legions only needed to be better organized than their opponents (which was not that hard, as many of their opponents did not have professional militaries and/or relied heavily on mercenaries) , they were not required to be uber organized by 21st century standards...

This combined with their higher manpower and good weaponry was enough to give them the advantage in most situations.... still they lost badly many battles (Cannae, Teutoburg, Arausio, Carrae are just some of these)....

One of the points Goldsworthy makes in the below book is that all roman generals who were succesful, spent quite a bit of time (1 year or more) initially just training their troops BEFORE going into any significant battle (e.g. Scipio Africanus trained his men in Sicily before invading North Africa).. This seems to indicate that the overall level was pretty low until some general took it into his hands to extensively train his forces.

 
Feb 2011
305
NY, NY
By the end of Caesar's life, the legions were the cat's meow, yes.
I'm glad you mentioned Caesar. I don't think you could perform the siege of Alesia (for example) without extreme discipline, not to mention through much of this they were fighting two fronts and 4 to 1.

But also Pompey loaned Caesar legions, two I think during the campaign, and these troops blended right into the scheme of things. This could not occur without discipline.

No, they probably didn't march around in lock-step, but you wouldn't want to fall asleep on night-watch either.
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
14,258
I don't think you could perform the siege of Alesia (for example) without extreme discipline, not to mention through much of this they were fighting two fronts and 4 to 1.
Or so claims JC..... who is not biased in the least....

This would mean the gauls somehow managed to assemble an uber army the likes of which the world had never seen and would not see again in one battle until the 19th century.... And then that uber army managed to lose the battle....
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,459
Portugal
Or so claims JC..... who is not biased in the least....

This would mean the gauls somehow managed to assemble an uber army the likes of which the world had never seen and would not see again in one battle until the 19th century.... And then that uber army managed to lose the battle....
Caesar’s work, the Conquest of Gaul, is a work of propaganda, he is the main character of the narrative, and the number of foes may have been exaggerated (nothing new here), but the main information of the narrative is probably true. There were many other Romans with him in Gaul, inclusively some later political enemies. And while many criticisms to Caesar’s survived until today, none claims that those events were false.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,357
What caught my eye was many websites claiming how the Roman legions were like modern armies, very well trained and disciplined.
This has been a feature of thinking on Roman armies since they vanished. Adrian Goldsworthy has written that commentary on the Roman legions reflects contemporary thinking and to a large extent we fall into the same trap (that's why I go and on about this subject). We're used to a certain military methodology in our on modern society and spot the similarities. But as I repeat often, it's the differences that matter.

Were they well trained? Not consistently. It depended who was in charge and whether they needed to be actively campaigning.

Were they well disciplined? Not consistently, but were capable of harsh military regimes to enforce what the Romans considered proper martial behaviour. Nonetheless their behaviour is not comparable to modern western armies who these days insist on a regime of 'ordered good manners'. The Roman commanders were often keen to please their men to avoid issues (though this was suppressed during the Principate) and the soldiers basically allowed to conduct small scale thefts and violence without punishment (as we know from Juvenal - 'a judge in boots' of a military tribunal that might well result in the plaintiff being subject to further violence. Cicero advised his friend to let the donkey go if the soldiers wanted it).
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,633
Sydney
The long story of legions revolting and nominating some commander as Imperator put a limit on the concept of "discipline"
after a legion had been stationed in a place for decades , the standards of training must have fallen further
Still , as Tomar point out , they usually were better than the opposition
 
Dec 2019
3
India
Were they well trained? Not consistently. It depended who was in charge and whether they needed to be actively campaigning.
So, no big difference between the training of armies of the Romans and other great conquerors in history then? Also, did they really train like, year long as some claim, I can not verify it?
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,069
MD, USA
So, no big difference between the training of armies of the Romans and other great conquerors in history then? Also, did they really train like, year long as some claim, I can not verify it?
I suspect there were differences of some sort. We have several different sources that refer to Roman training, mentioning things like training at the wooden post, and sparring with each other with padded swords, plus kit marches, etc. I don't know if there is any detail like that for, say, the Macedonian army. It's pretty clear that some Macedonian armies *were* pretty well trained and disciplined, (plus you really can't put a pike phalanx in the field without *some* training!) but we don't really have any details that I've heard of.

Training year-round may just be an assumption, or it could be based on the covered halls found at some forts that seem to have been used for indoor training. Like others have said, it probably varied.

A point by a recent author (Goldsworthy?) bears repeating: Strictly speaking, there *was* no "Roman army". The Romans had an army in Germany, an army in Asia, an army in Africa, etc. It was not a unified organization and was not intended to be, so there was no "central command" (aside from the Emperor!), no equivalent of the Pentagon, etc.

Matthew
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,978
Dispargum
Words like 'modern,' 'well-trained,' and 'disciplined' seem to be beating around the edges of a larger concept called 'professional.' Professional means more than just full time employment. It also means a recognition that an army career is fundamentally different that other career paths. It implies a set of interests such as pay and promotions. In the Roman sense, a professional army also had a major say in who became emperor. An emperor who neglected the interests of the army did so at his own peril.

Professions also tend to define their own professional standards which are not always in the best interests of society at large. For instance, lawyers argue. It's what they do. Many court cases degenerate into endless, pointless bickering because judges are lawyers, too, and they tend to indulge the lawyers over the clients who might just want to get the case over with. This happens a lot in divorce cases. The husband and wife might just want to get on with their separate lives. It's the lawyers who keep the arguments going. In the case of a professional army, the army tends to define its own ethics even if those ethics are not in the best interest of society - for instance military law is separate from civilian law. Strategies and tactics like bombing cities or nuclear war might be banned if the decisions were made solely by civilians.