Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Royal Army of Rome, 600bc

According to the chronology of early Rome given by later historians, at the beginning Rome was ruled by a succession of seven kings. The first king was Romulus, who founded the city in 753bc and the last was Tarquin the Proud, ousted in a coup in 509bc.

For most of this period the Roman Army consisted of the men of the city and surrounding farmland mustered together wielding whatever weapons they brought with them. In about 550bc, however, King Servius Tullius reformed the armed forces of Rome. Documents describing the new system have survived and provide a clear picture of the Roman army under the last of the kings.

The basis of the army was citizenship and wealth. Only citizens of Rome could serve in the army, slaves and foreigners being excluded. The wealth of the citizen dictated what equipment he was expected to bring to the muster and the unit in which he served. Units at this time were termed centuries and were made up of 100 men. The army was periodically paraded on the open plain immediately north of the city and subjected to a strict inspection to ensure that every man had his proper weapons and knew the tactical drills of his unit. This area subsequently became known as the Field of Mars.

The richest men mustered each with a large, round shield together with bronze cuirass, greaves and helmet. Their offensive weapons were a long, thrusting spear and short sword. Rome could field about 8,000 such men who formed up for battle in a dense mass eight ranks deep. Each man in the front rank had about 30 inches of space, so his shield overlapped that of the man to his left, presenting a solid wall to the enemy. The men in the front rank used their spears to lunge at the enemy, while the men behind them held their spears overhead to stab at any enemy whose guard slipped. Only the front three ranks could fight at any one time, the rear ranks being expected to step forward to replace casualties or to add their weight to the pushing scrum into which battles could quickly degenerate. This style of equipment and fighting was Greek and had been copied and learned from the Greek cities doted around southern Italy, such as Naples and Pompeii.

The less wealthy men of the second and third classes had lighter armour and rectangular shields. They did, however, carry thrusting spears and swords and formed up in a phalanx formation. At this date, Rome had about 4,000 men equipped in this fashion. The fourth class numbered some 2,000 men equipped with shield and spear alone who fought in a more open formation. Another 3,000 men came equipped only with slings or javelins. They fought as skirmishers in battle and acted as scouts on campaign. The sixth class of truly poor citizens could not afford any military equipment. They served as labourers who were put to work repairing fortifications or transporting supplies.

In times of war the army was divided in two. The older men were given the task of manning the walls of Rome and other fortifications while the younger men went on campaign. In all the Roman army of about 550bc numbered around 10,000 men, plus an unknown number of labourers, armourers and other workmen.

The military reforms of Servius Tullius also included erecting the first defensive stone wall around Rome in 565bc. Before his time Rome had relied on the army for defence, and on wooden palisades around its naturally strong site on hills surrounded by marshy land. But as the population grew the city itself began to be rich enough to tempt attackers, while the marshes were being drained to provide building land or, in the case of the Forum, an open space for public events. The wall Servius built was said to encompass all seven of the hills on which Rome was built, though archaeology reveals that at this time only the summits were occupied. Perhaps the meadows were included within the walls so that the valuable livestock could be kept in safety in times of siege.

The Servian Wall, which ancient writers pointed to as the work of King Servius, has been shown by archaeology to be the work of the mid-4th century bc. Whether this was because the Romans had got the dates of their early history incorrect, because Servius did not build such a wall at all, or whether because it was simply rebuilt is unclear.

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