Saturday 9 February 2013

Legionaries and Auxiliaries and Combat Engineers

I suppose that the best thing for a wargame rule writer to do, once the rule set in question is complete, is to wrap the set, the notes, play test figures, books, papers and everything else to do with the subject in a large sheet and cast it into the depths of the ocean. The memory of the production of the rules should be deleted (I believe that some electric shock treatments can achieve this) and the writer should never, ever look at the subject again.

The problem is this: if the author continues to read about the subject of the rules, then they will be wishing that they had written the said rules differently.

I suppose that this is, in part, the human condition, but I have run across a case in point recently. In the PM: SPQR I say something, somewhere, about early Empire Roman auxilia and legionaries being similarly armed and having similar tactical roles. Somewhere else, I may say that legionaries are occasionally regarded, in modern historiography, as being more akin to combat engineers rather than the front line foot most of us take them for.

The original source for this idea, of legionaries being dual purpose close combat infantry and combat engineers comes from Edward Luttwak’s ‘The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire From the First Century AD to the Third’ (1976, Johns Hopkins: Baltimore), on page 40 of my edition, anyway. Luttwak is discussing the early Empire legion and argues that the legionaries seem to do an awful lot of building and digging, and not a huge amount of fighting.  Perhaps because he is not a classicist but a strategist, Luttwak’s work has been rather neglected, when it has not been misrepresented in the literature, so all I did was pause, note this is an interesting idea, and move along.

This idea was returned to my mind recently when I was reading another book, this one by J E Lendon, ‘Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity’ (2005, Yale: London). This has taken me a while to get around to because the core of its argument is that most classical battle activity is based, consciously or not, around the basis of the fighting as described in the Iliad, and so, while I bought Lendon’s book a while ago, I felt that before reading it, I had better read the Iliad itself.

Now, Lendon observes that on Trajan’s column, legionaries and auxilia are presented in different ways. The auxilia are the “wild men”, in combat, taking heads, providing sentries for the legionaries who are building siege works, collecting wood, parading and so on. Legionaries fight in just four scenes, while auxilia fight in fourteen (p 242-3).

At the same time, the artistic and archaeological evidence for Roman legionary armour suggests that it became heavier and more protective from blows from above, which suggests, again, that legionaries had become more focussed on being siege specialists. The campaign in Dacia which Trajan’s column represents was, so far as we can tell, very much one of sieges rather than field actions.

According to Goldsworthy’s ‘In the Name of Rome’ chapter on the Dacian Wars, head taking had been outlawed for the Empire forces, but it was presumably acceptable for auxiliary forces, particularly those not in the regular army, to do so. The auxilia again are shown to be the wild side of the Roman army.

Lendon picks this up again in his discussion of the two sides of ancient soldier’s views. The first is ‘virtus’, the sort of manly courage and showing off that the auxilia, at least, demonstrate in Trajan’s column. Virtus was competitive, the aim was to be the best, the bravest, the most courageous, the most outrageously committed soldier to the cause.

The second side is that of disciplina, that is obedience to officers, to discipline, competition in controlled games, labouring, and inter-unit competitiveness. This sort of thing is seen in the markers on, for example, Hadrian’s Wall where there are inscriptions of the different units which completed assigned sections. It is also found at the siege of Jerusalem, where the lines of circumvallation went up impressively quickly under this competitive stress between units (Lendon p 250).

The suggestion that Lendon makes, then, is that these two virtues of virtus and disciplina existed and co-existed in the Roman army, and that both were encouraged. However, he also suggests that the latter was, perhaps, more focussed on in the legions, while the former was more for the auxilia. It would seem, for example, that auxiliary units such as the Batavians were recruited for their virtus (Tacitus Germania 29).

There is also the suggestion, made by Tacitus, that it was more worthy to win battles without spilling Roman blood (Agricola 35). On the other hand, the legions did deploy for battle, and would presumably have fought if they had been needed. It is rather hard to be sure in the Agricola, if Tacitus was not just making things up so it looked better for his father in law or not.

In terms of wargame rules, I am now thinking that I should have differentiated auxilia and legionaries by differing virtus and disciplina, which could probably have been spread to the other armies encountered in the period. The would then take account for the differences between formed and unformed troops, as well as the morale, élan and tendency not to obey orders which is encountered in the literature (not just among auxilia, incidentally).

Perhaps this sort of system would be a little over complex, however, and also the perspective of the general would need to be taken into account. Generals, on the whole, like their units to do what they are told, and Roman generals occasionally told their troops off for being too enthusiastic for the fight. It is noteworthy, however, that troops were never punished for being over-enthusiastic into the fight, even if it involved them abandoning sentry positions and the like.

Perhaps I should have stopped reading with the publication of the rules, then I would not be being plagued by these thoughts, but I suppose there is always the second edition, isn’t there.


  1. An interesting idea of another way to look at the troops, worth at least exploring.

    It would also be interesting to try and trace the development of Auxilia from Caeser through to the creation of the Auxilia Palatina. Is it possible the Dacian campaign was nonstandard due to the mountainous terrain and a foe who avoided pitched battles? Without digging, it seems to me that Arrian has the Legions as the core of the battle line against the Alans and during the invasion of Britain a very rusty memory suggests the Auxilia at that date were used for typical light infantry tasks, fording rivers, preliminary skirmishes etc with the Legions being used for the real shock of battle, assaults on forts etc. Might also be interesting to look at some Imperial civil war battles to see the relative uses of the units and how it changes over time as the Legions fade.

  2. I suspect that the Dacian campaign was an oddity, and thus using Trajan's column to describe the whole of the Roman army is probably dangerous.

    It seems that there was evolution of the auxilia; many of the unit were based in the same place for centuries and recruited locally, so they lost much of their original character. I think that they started out as being recruited for a particular reason (the Batavians) and then developed to become more 'line' like.

    Mind you, I suspect that the Romans often had large quantities of locally recruited troops on campaign. I think at the siege of Jerusalem 20000 men came from client kingdoms locally (my memory of Josephus is fading) and it was they who enabled the lines of circumvallation to be completed and manned.

    Often, it seems that the idea of a 'Roman' army in the early empire is not Roman at all.