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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
A Description of the Trajan Column
by John Hungerford Pollen

printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode,
printers to Queen Victoria
London, 1874

Text and engravings are in the public domain.
Any color photographs are © William P. Thayer 1997-


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The Legion

 p15  The name of legion was derived from the custom of choosing, legere, the officers and men who made up those bodies and, though many changes in their constitution took place, the title survived down to the time of the removal of the seat of empire. The bodies of men so named did not answer to any modern military organization in the armies of our own times. They were larger than regiments, and were composed of all the arms of the service. They were in fact what would now make small corps d'armée, containing infantry, which formed the main strength of Roman armies as of those of the present day; with a proportion of cavalry; of artillery, such as was then in use; and of sappers and engineers. Each Roman legion was thus a complete army, carried its own baggage, reserve stores of arms and ammunition, provisions, tools for camping, mining, fortifications; and amongst the men were found armourers, smiths, masons and carpenters, latterly boat-builders. The legion was competent to engage the enemy on any ground, to conduct sieges, make temporary or permanent entrenchments, and could be settled as a border colony on suitable sites, where the soldiers began forthwith to construct walled towns, temples, baths, theatres, etc. They will be often seen so employed in the bas-reliefs.

The old constitution of the legion numbered 4,000 or 4,200 infantry, 300 cavalry, 150 officers, 75 standard bearers; in all 4,725. The number of the infantry at various times exceeded 4,000, and from the second consulship of Marius was about 5,000, and under the empire 6,000 and 6,200; 5,000 however was generally the limit of this larger number. The cavalry seems not to have increased but to have diminished to less than half the old number during the centuries of imperial rule, and its employment to have been confined to outpost duty, reconnaissances, etc., during the campaigns of the emperors. In the course of these sculptures, however, the cavalry are often seen engaged in attacking close formations and in pursuing the broken bodies of Dacians, sometimes galloping through and firing the towns or settlements through which they case the enemy, and hunting up refugees amongst the mountain defiles round Sarmizegethusa and other oppida in and about the valley to which the Irongate, the Vulkan, Rothenthurm, and other passes had given the Romans access.  p16 

Subdivisions of the legion

The legion was divided, originally, according to the age and period of service of the men. The younger soldiers were velites and were formed into manipuli or companies, a name taken from the handful of grass or fern which was tied to a lance and served as an ensign. There were fifteen manipuli of hastati, each containing sixty men, two centuriones and one vexillarius or standard bearer. They formed the front line in action or on the march. Behind the hastati came the principes, older soldiers composed in the same manner; behind the principes the triarii composed of the best and steadiest veterans in the legion. They also were in the same formation as the first two lines, viz. fifteen companies, but each containing three manipuli, that is one hundred and eight privates, six centurions, and three vexillarii. They were classed according to quality in three ranks of which only the first rank contained the best men. Behind these triarii therefore the ranks were called rorarii, who threw their pila or spears like dew, running to the front between the divisions of the manipuli and retiring again behind them; others were called accensi who were the men on whom least dependence could be placed. In the time of Polybius, the legion was divided differently, the younger troops were called velites, or γρόσφοροι, from the spear they carried, their number varying; next came the hastati, whose number also varied; and next six hundred triarii. But the numbers of these last were never changed. The cavalry remained as before.

The officers were sixty centuriones and sixty optiones lieutenants chosen by the centuriones; the former headed, the latter followed the centuries or manipuli. The first chosen of the centurions led the right wing, the second the left. The cavalry were in ten troops or turmae, with three decuriones or superior officers and three optiones or subalterns to each.

The legion, which had originally consisted of Roman citizens only, gradually included all Romans, and during the last century B.C. all the free population of Italy; under Caracalla the entire Roman world were called upon to serve in their ranks. Allies and auxiliaries were gradually introduced under the name of socii who served under their own leaders, praefecti sociorum, and encamped apart. In the third century A.D. Goths and others formed entire legions. Down to the end of the republic the legions, though formed and sworn in, were sent after the end of a campaign to their several homes on long furlough, though liable to  p17 serve. But after the time of Caesar standing armies were kept up and the military career became a profession, and out of the pay or plunder acquired by the soldier money could be saved, or he would receive grants of border land, and was often settled advantageously in the military stations and colonies established for the protection of the frontier.

With the introduction of allies or auxiliary forces other changes had grown in the legion. The entire force was divided into ten cohorts. The cohorts were still divided into manipuli commanded by centurions, and the whole body arranged in two lines of five cohorts each. The old distinction be velites, hastati, principes and Triarii ceased. The men were distinguished as those of levis armatura and gravis armatura. The various socii or auxiliaries taken into the Roman service were employed as separate arms of the service, such as Balearic funditores (slingers), Cretan archers, Moorish jaculatores (throwers of darts). Under the emperors the actual legion was supposed therefore to contain ten cohorts of six centuries of eighty men each. But the first cohort had the charge of the eagle and contained double the numbers of the others, viz., 960 instead of 480 men: in all 5,280 men. The old system of tactics in which the youngest and least experienced men led the column in order of battle was reversed. The old soldiers now formed the front line. On the march the Romans and allies were kept distinct. Each formed their own advanced and rear guards, and the baggage of each cohort was carefully guarded, and experienced men, exploratores, were sent on to search the country carefully and save the army from any chances of ambush or surprise. This seems to have been one of the great uses of the cavalry, of which the numbers, that is of actual Romans, were small at all times. They are seen frequently on the column sent forward to feel for the enemy in the woods and mountain passes, and are sometimes represented carrying back exact information to the emperor of the progress of a battle actually going on in his front. Besides these the emperors, like the consuls before them in the days of the Republic, were surrounded by a select body of men both mounted and on foot who formed a staff as well as a body guard, selecti equites and selecti pedites, each legion furnished, according to Josephus, 120 horse.18 The higher  p18 officers, of which there were six in each legion, were the tribunes. They commanded about 1,000 men, if the legion be taken as in round numbers 6,000. When the consuls were at the head of their constitutional forces, that is two legions each, they had 12 tribunes under them, and that was considered to be the regular number in a Roman camp.

There remains another force to be noted here because a portion of it was employed and did good service in these wars, — the Praetorians. Of these Trajan took ten cohorts or some 10,000 men. These troops were first raised and formed into a separate corps by the emperor Augustus. The men were selected, like the French imperial guard, from the best and most trustworthy soldiers of every legion, and were a corps d'élite, not raised like our own Guards in the same way as other bodies of the service, which therefore are not drained of choice men in the process. A Praetorian cohort, or body guard, had been raised by Scipio Africanus as a body to attend on the person of the commander but Augustus deemed that something more than this was wanted for the security of his throne. He wanted an army permanently embodied, always in full training, equipped and provided, and ready at a moment's notice for any emergency. This force consisted of nine or ten cohorts, containing a thousand men each, horse and foot, and of these the politic emperor stationed only three cohorts in Rome itself, keeping the others dispersed in different parts of Italy. Tiberius first assembled the whole force together, summoned them to Rome and established them in the fortified quarters built for them by Sejanus, of which the ruins still remain outside the old wall of Servius Tullius. These quarters contained permanent buildings, some of them richly decorated, and of which remains can be traced at the present time. The camp was dismantled by the Emperor Constantine.

The Praetorians were better paid, or had larger shares of cornº and food, than the ordinary legionaries. Their arms and accoutrements were richer. Some emperors, such as Alexander Severus, as a matter of state policy tried to turn the sentiment of their guards in this direction, that the gold lavished upon them might be devoted to the splendour of their horses, armour, and appointments, in which their military pride might be centred and gratified. It became a necessity for the successors of Augustus at various periods to propitiate the Praetorians, who had become the only source of executive power during the revolutions  p19 of the empire. Enormous sums were thus sacrificed at the accession of candidates for the throne of the Caesars. But these troops in the reign of Septimius Severus had to be entirely renewed. He banished the old Praetorians who had basely deserted the imperial cause and violated the sanctity of the throne by the murder of Pertinax, and formed a new guard by selected draughts of the best soldiers from the various legions stationed on the frontiers. During the wars of Trajan, illustrated by the column, the Praetorians had not reached this dangerous or corrupt condition; they were still the flower of the Roman troops.

The Author's Notes:

18 Principilares, Equites singulares Imperatoris. These were picked men. Five horses are seen constantly on the column in attendance on the emperor, with the same number of attendant officers. Speculatores were aides employed as couriers, or galopers; Exploratores were trained scouts employed to ride forward and reconnoitre.

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Page updated: 27 Nov 01