The Roman military system according to Polybius

After electing the consuls, they appoint military tribunes, fourteen from those who have seen five years’ service and ten from those who have seen ten. As for the rest, a cavalry soldier must serve for ten years in all and an infantry soldier for sixteen years before reaching the age of forty-six, with the exception of those whose census is under four hundred drachmae, all of whom are employed in naval service. In case of pressing danger twenty years’ service is demanded from the infantry. No one is eligible for any political office before he has completed ten years’ service. The consuls, when they are about to enrol soldiers, announce at a meeting of the popular assembly the day on which all Roman citizens of military age must present themselves, and this they do annually. On the appointed day, when those liable to service arrive in Rome, and assemble on the Capitol, the junior tribunes divide themselves into four groups, as the popular assembly or the consuls determine, since the main and original division of their forces is into four legions. The four tribunes first nominated are appointed to the first legion, the next three to the second, the following four to the third, and the last three to the fourth. Of the senior tribunes the first two are appointed to the first legion, the next three to the second, the next two to the third, and the three last to the fourth.


The division and appointment of the tribunes having thus been so made that each legion has the same number of officers, those of each legion take their seats apart, and they draw lots for the tribes, and summon them singly in the order of the lottery. From each tribe they first of all select four lads of more or less the same age and physique. When these are brought forward the officers of the first legion have first choice, those of the second second choice, those of the third third, and those of the fourth last. Another batch of four is now brought forward, and this time the officers of the second legion have first choice and so on, those of the first choosing last. A third batch having been brought forward the tribunes of the third legion choose first, and those of the second last. By thus continuing to give each legion first choice in turn, each gets men of the same standard. When they have chosen the number determined on that is when the strength of each legion is brought up to four thousand two hundred, or in times of exceptional danger to five thousand the old system was to choose the cavalry after the four thousand two hundred infantry, but they now choose them first, the censor selecting them according to their wealth; and three hundred are assigned to each legion.

The enrolment having been completed in this manner, those of the tribunes on whom this duty falls collect the newly-enrolled soldiers, and picking out of the whole body a single man whom they think the most suitable make him take the oath that he will obey his officers and execute their orders as far as is in his power. Then the others come forward and each in his turn takes his oath simply that he will do the same as the first man.

At the same time the consuls send their orders to the allied cities in Italy which they wish to contribute troops, stating the numbers required and the day and place at which the men selected must present themselves. The magistrates, choosing the men and administering the oath in the manner above described, send them off, appointing a commander and a paymaster.

The tribunes in Rome, after administering the oath, fix for each legion a day and place at which the men are to present themselves without arms and then dismiss them. When they come to the rendezvous, they choose the youngest and poorest to form the velites; the next to them are made kastati; those in the prime of life principes; and the oldest of all triarii, these being the names among the Romans of the four classes in each legion distinct in age and equipment. They divide them so that the senior men known as triarii number six hundred, the principes twelve hundred, the hastati twelve hundred, the rest, consisting of the youngest, being velites. If the legion consists of more than four thousand men, they divide accordingly, except as regards the triarii, the number of whom is always the same.

The youngest soldiers or velites are ordered to carry a sword, javelins, and a target (parma). The target is strongly made and sufficiently large to afford protection, being circular and measuring three feet in diameter. They also wear a plain helmet, and sometimes cover it with a wolf’s skin or something similar both to protect and to act as a distinguishing mark by which their officers can recognize them and judge if they fight pluckily or not. The wooden shaft of the javelin measures about two cubits in length and is about a finger’s breadth in thickness; its head is a span long hammered out to such a fine edge that it is necessarily bent by the first impact, and the enemy is unable to return it. If this were not so, the missile would be available for both sides.

The next in seniority called hastati are ordered to wear a complete panoply. The Roman panoply consists firstly of a shield (scutum), the convex surface of which measures two and a half feet in width and four feet in length, the thickness at the rim being a palm’s breadth. It is made of two planks glued together, the outer surface being then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. Its upper and lower rims are strengthened by an iron edging which protects it from descending blows and from injury when rested on the ground. It also has an iron boss (umbo) fixed to it which turns aside the more formidable blows of stones, pikes, and heavy missiles in general. Besides the shield they also carry a sword, hanging on the right thigh and called a Spanish sword. This is excellent for thrusting, and both of its edges cut effectually, as the blade is very strong and firm. In addition they have two pila, a brass helmet, and greaves. The pila are of two sorts stout and fine. Of the stout ones some are round and a palm’s length in diameter and others are a palm square. The fine pila, which they carry in addition to the stout ones, are like moderate-sized hunting-spears, the length of the haft in all cases being about three cubits. Each is fitted with a barbed iron head of the same length as the haft. This they attach so securely to the haft, carrying the attachment halfway up the latter and fixing it with numerous rivets, that in action the iron will break sooner than become detached, although its thickness at the bottom where it comes in contact with the wood is a finger’s breadth and a half; such great care do they take about attaching it firmly. Finally they wear as an ornament a circle of feathers with three upright purple or black feathers about a cubit in height, the addition of which on the head surmounting their other arms is to make every man look twice his real height, and to give him a fine appearance, such as will strike terror into the enemy. The common soldiers wear in addition a breastplate of brass a span square, which they place in front of the heart and call the heartprotector (pectorale), this completing their accoutrements; but those who are rated above ten thousand drachmas wear instead of this a coat of chain-mail (lorica). The principes and triarii are armed in the same manner except that instead of the pila the triarii carry long spears (hastae).

From each of the classes except the youngest they elect ten centurions according to merit, and then they elect a second ten. All these are called centurions, and the first man elected has a seat in the military council. The centurions then appoint an equal number of rearguard officers (optiones). Next, in conjunction with the centurions, they divide each class into ten companies, except the velites, and assign to each company two centurions and two optiones from among the elected officers. The velites are divided equally among all the companies; these companies are called ordines or manipuli or vexilla, and their officers are called centurions or ordinum ductores. Finally these officers appoint from the ranks two of the finest and bravest men to be standard-bearers (vexillarii) in each maniple. It is natural that they should appoint two commanders for each maniple; for it being uncertain what may be the conduct of an officer or what may happen to him, and affairs of war not admitting of pretexts and excuses, they wish the maniple never to be without a leader and chief. When both centurions are on the spot, the first elected commands the right half of the maniple and the second the left, but if both are not present the one who is commands the whole. They wish the centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as to be natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hardpressed and be ready to die at their posts.

In like manner they divide the cavalry into ten squadrons (turmae) and from each they select three officers (decuriones), who themselves appoint three rear-rank officers (optiones). The first commander chosen commands the whole squadron, and the two others have the rank of decuriones, all three bearing this title. If the first of them should not be present, the second takes command of the squadron. The cavalry are now armed like that of Greece, but in old times they had no cuirasses but fought in light undergarments, the result of which was that they were able to dismount and mount again at once with great dexterity and facility, but were exposed to great danger in close combat, as they were nearly naked. Their lances too were unserviceable in two respects. In the first place they made them so slender and pliant that it was impossible to take a steady aim, and before they could fix the head in anything, the shaking due to the mere motion of the horse caused most of them to break. Next, as they did not fit the butt-ends with spikes, they could only deliver the first stroke with the point and after this if they broke they were of no further service. Their buckler was made of ox-hide, somewhat similar in shape to the round bossed cakes used at sacrifices. They were not of any use for attacking, as they were not firm enough; and when the leather covering peeled off and rotted owing to the rain, unserviceable as they were before, they now became entirely so. Since therefore their arms did not stand the test of experience, they soon took to making them in the Greek fashion, which ensures that the first stroke of the lance-head shall be both well aimed and telling, since the lance is so constructed as to be steady and strong, and also that it may continue to be effectively used by reversing it and striking with the spike at the butt end. And the same applies to the Greek shields, which being of solid and firm texture do good service both in defence and attack. The Romans, when they noticed this, soon learnt to copy the Greek arms; for this too is one of their virtues, that no people are so ready to adopt new fashions and imitate what they see is better in others.

The tribunes having thus organized the troops and ordered them to arm themselves in this manner, dismiss them to their homes. When the day comes on which they have all sworn to attend at the place appointed by the consuls each consul as a rule appointing a separate rendezvous for his own troops, since each has received his share of the allies and two Roman legions none of those on the roll ever fail to appear, no excuse at all being admitted except adverse omens or absolute impossibility. The allies having now assembled also at the same places as the Romans, their organization and command are undertaken by the officers appointed by the consuls known as praefecti sociorum and twelve in number. They first of all select for the consuls from the whole force of allies assembled the horsemen and footmen most fitted for actual service, these being known as extraordinarii, that is “select”. The total number of allied infantry is usually equal to that of the Romans, while the cavalry are three times as many. Of these they assign about a third of the cavalry and a fifth of the infantry to the picked corps; the rest they divide into two bodies, one known as the right wing and the other as the left.

When these arrangements have been made, the tribunes take both the Romans and allies and pitch their camp, one simple plan of camp being adopted at all times and in all places.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.IIΙ, Book VI, Loeb Classical Library)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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