The changing faces of Rome's armies

‘The most important single factor in the whole of Roman history is quite simply the success of the Roman army’ wrote John Mann in 1974. That army had been called the ‘ultimate war machine’ and has inspired generations of military men with its organisation, tactics and victories. But in their enthusiasm to study an army at the peak of its battlefield efficiency, students have sometimes overlooked not simply the way in which the Roman military changed over time, but also the way in which it varied, from place to place and unit to unit.

Acknowledging this variety, and recognising that there was much more to the soldiery than their battlefield exploits, does not diminish the importance of military success to Roman history. It does help us to understand how the frontiers worked and, no less importantly, how Roman provincial society evolved.

In this introductory video we aim to show you what you can expect of this week. There is violence, certainly, but there are also profoundly important points to consider in terms of how and why Rome’s armies changed. So we will look at both the army of conquest, the force that swept through Britain in the decades following the Claudian invasion of AD 43, but also at the force that garrisoned Hadrian’s Wall from the second century onwards.

Mann, J. C. 1974 ‘The Frontiers of the Principate’, in Temporini, H. (ed) Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt 2. 1 508-533, p. 509 (out of print)

If you are looking for an introduction to the broader military history of Rome, we would particularly recommend both: Goldsworthy, A. K. 2007 Roman Warfare, and Phoenix & James, S.J. 2011 Rome and the Sword: How warriors and weapons shaped Roman History, London: Thames and Hudson.

The army that (almost) conquered Britain

Contrary to what many people believe, Julius Caesar neither conquered Britain nor transformed it into a Roman province. Rather he led two short military expeditions here, in 55 and 54 BC respectively. It was not until AD 43 (during the reign of the Emperor Claudius) that a true army of conquest arrived in Britain to stay.

This army, a fully professional force, owed much of its character and organisation to Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, the man who transformed the Roman state during his rule (from 27 BC to AD 14). It contained four legions, made up of citizen soldiers: the Legio II Augusta (whose standards appear on the building stone RIB 1341 from Hadrian’s Wall above), Legio IX Hispana, Legio XIV Gemina and Legio XX Valeria Victrix. Two of these legions had left Britain by the time Hadrian’s Wall was built and another, Legio VI Victrix, had arrived. The army of conquest also consisted of auxiliary units of infantry and cavalry, composed overwhelmingly of the Empire’s non-citizen subjects and comprising over 20,000 men. It was a huge force – and it was to transform Britain as it took over the south and, within a few decades of arriving launched itself as far up as the Scottish Highlands. But what did it look like?

In our first activity this week, we explore the organisation and equipment of the invading army. We will consider the evidence for the equipment they carried and read the monuments they left behind.

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