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Maniples: How Rome Marched to Empire

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ata1515 is a student of history, focusing on the modern, medieval, and ancient histories of Europe.

This article will take a look at how Roman battle techniques such as the maniple helped expand its empire.

This article will take a look at how Roman battle techniques such as the maniple helped expand its empire.

Rome wasn't built in a day. Years of bloody toil fertilized the ground of Italia, seeding the Earth with the sprouts of an empire that would shape the future of Europe. From its founding in 753 BCE, Rome would spread across Italy, Europe, Africa and Asia to forge one of history's most enduring states. While Roman society would advance engineering, philosophy and law, it was the adaptations of the Roman army that carried the state to a preeminent position in history.

Modern viewers see the Roman army as a civilized fighting force facing off against the barbarians of the wilds, whether in the forests of Germania and Gaul, along the Danube, or the plains of Hispania and Africa. Their contemporaries saw the Romans as the barbarians. Etruscans, Greeks, Carthaginians and successor states saw the Roman military as an aberration. Rome fought wars with a bloody single mindedness that refused to back down. Rome was aggressive, stubborn and disciplined, traits which filtered down through every strata of society.

Details of Rome's earliest history are lost to the passage of time, but we can take the mythical date of 753 BCE with a grain of salt and assume that the city rose to local prominence in the 8th century. The city itself has been continuously inhabited since. Roman law and society were in their earliest stages of being pieced together by legendary kings of Etruscan origin. Within the fabric of the Etruscan system, we can see that the city would have been engaged in endemic violence with the other local city states, vying for control of land and resources necessary to grow a city.

During the Etruscan kingship, Rome was introduced to Greek warfare based on the hoplite and phalanx. For two hundred years, Rome warred with its Latin and Etruscan neighbors for the glory of the Etruscan kings who ruled it. But in 509 BCE, Rome cast out the last Etruscan king and declared a republic. From this time, Rome fought for its life against the Latin and Etruscan neighbors, expanding and growing its power. Even as republican democracy spread across Italy, Rome lived in growing fear of its neighbors. This came to a height around 390 BCE.

From the north came the Gauls, Celtic warriors bent on pillage, who swept across Italy striking out at Etruscan and Latin alike. Into this, Rome stepped forward to defend her allies from Gallic attack but was completely defeated. Gauls poured over the borders and into the city of Rome and sacked it. Rome was beaten, but refused to be defeated. A new army raised under Marcus Furius Camillus drove off the Gauls after a great loss of life and damage to the city. This event would shape Roman policy towards the Gauls for 400 years and instill a belief in suicidal bravery among the Roman population, but it would also change the shape of the Roman war machine.

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The Hoplite Phalanx

Little is recorded of Rome's earliest military campaigns, but the primary sources leave us to be believe that they followed the earlier hoplite phalanx—spear and shield armed soldiers with helmets and greaves. It's important to note that weapons and armor were not provided by the state at this time, so a Roman army would not look the part of the uniform disciplined warriors we are left to expect due to art and movies. Roman soldiers would have had the best gear that their family could provide.

The phalanx is a machine of discipline. Soldiers rank up, forming a wall of spears and advance forward pushing the enemy formation back and off the field of battle. Veteran soldiers take the front or rear ranks and hope to push the unit forward. This type of warfare does not allow for individual glory. It does not display the courage of individual warriors who fight in it.

This must have caused an issue for the Roman army. Rome looked to itself as the heir to the classical world. We see this in the way they imitated Greek history from equipment like the Italo-Corinthian helmet, which copied the Corinthian helmet but placed the eye slits on the top—most likely replicated from vases where Greek heroes pulled their helmets back to have better vision and to display their face.

Furthermore, the phalanx only works well in open, flat spaces. Rough ground, trees, or hills cause the phalanx to break ranks. Once broken up, the soldiers with their long spears are unable to fight in close quarters and tend to suffer heavy losses. Italy is not flat. Hills and woods dot the countryside, and Roman enemies like the Samnites, Sabines and Gauls were hill people—raiders that struck out from hill villages armed with javelins and short swords who could withdraw into their hills and refuse battle with a hoplite phalanx.

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The Manipular Legion

Rome's preeminent position in the Latin states, its rapacious neighbors, and a stubborn will all led to a series of wars with the Samnites. These early battles did not go well for the Republics armies and in turn they adapted. Rome would constantly adapt as it grew into an empire and the Manipular Legion was the first major adaption that changed the Roman army from a local power to the dominant power.

The manipular legion redesigned the phalanx into a flexible three line force, plus the light skirmishers, that allowed a greater number of citizens to provide meaningfully to the army. Where the phalanx mobilized the entire force into a single unit, the maniple gives each class of warrior its own specific role. Warriors were designated by their age and social status, but the maniple gave soldiers the opportunity to earn advancement.

Velites

Lightly armed and armored, the Velites were the skirmishers of the Roman army. Advancing in a mass and armed with javelins, the Velites engaged enemy forces while the lines assembled. Velites were known to wear unique markings so that they could challenge enemies in single combat and be recognized for their courage.

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Hastati

The first rank and file soldiers of the manipular legion were the Hastati. Armed with short javelins, sword and shield and armored with a breastplate the Hastati were in between light and heavy infantry. They would throw their javelins to disrupt the enemy formation before they charged. These soldiers fought in lines, fighting a single enemy to the death before withdrawing back along the line or dying.

It is here that Roman virtue met Roman discipline. Soldiers at this level were forced to fight, so it wasn't as courageous, and soldiers were expected to follow orders. Harsh punishments were installed for those who failed to follow orders up to and including summary execution.

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Principes

Richer, older, and better armored, the Principes were the main battle line of the Roman legion. Armed similarly to the Hastati but with heavy armor these soldiers were expected to fight and carry the day in most conflicts.

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Triarii

The last rank of soldiers were the Triarii. Older soldiers with enough money to afford armor, shields and spears, these men formed the last line of the army. If everyone else failed to break the enemy line the Romans would send in these last troops, which spawned the saying "it comes to the Triarii" meaning that one has used everything they have.

If the Triarii failed, they were expected to provide the rest of the soldiers a rearguard, buying them time with their lives.

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The Sword and the Spear

The Manipular Legion was born out of Roman ideals, Greek culture, and social practicality. It carved Italy into a Roman subsidiary by embracing Roman warrior culture tempered by the discipline of the military theory of the day. Without its history and adoption of Greek culture, all of Rome's technological advances would have been for naught. It was the virtue of the Roman people that allowed them to collect, adopt and overwhelm the world.

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Further Reading

  • DeVries, Kelly. Battles That Changed Warfare, 1457 B.C - 1991 A.D.: from Chariot Warfare to Stealth Bombers. New York: Metro Books, 2011.
  • Lendon, J. E. Soldiers & Ghosts: a History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Livy, and Betty Radice. Rome and Italy: Books VI-X. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982.
  • Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: a Military and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Penrose, Jane. Rome and Her Enemies: an Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.