September 21, 2008

The Legion


As Rome was threatened by the Volscians, it had to raise forces. Livy tells us that the dictator, appointed to solve the problem, raised ten legions in order to sweep away the Volscian danger (2.30). This is interesting- because it is the first time that I can recall Livy using the word 'legion' in his history. That does not mean that such things did not exist or were not in evolution earlier- nor does it mean that the legions raised by Manlius Valerius were similar formations to the great legions of the late Republic and early empire- indeed we know they were not. But it is important because it marks a change in Roman military history that had wide political repercussions. Early Roman warfare was cavalry warfare- based around the actions of a couple of notable noblemen- later Roman warfare was dominated by the infantry formation- the legion- and followed on Greek precedent with the phalanx of hoplites. The Legion and its ability to change shape, nature and also withstand heavy charges was the mainstay of Roman military success right up into the imperial era. We need to understand this change- and what precisely the legion at this point in the Republic meant for the citizen before we proceed to discussing the social turmoil that ran alongside the Volscian war.

Early Roman fighting I said was cavalry based. If we take Livy's accounts of battles between the Romans and others and look at them with an inquisitive eye, we can see Livy himself indicating this. There are Homeric encounters- particularly notable in this instance is the battle between the Tarquins and their allies and the Republic. Livy tells us that the armies came together along the battleground and that the son of Tarquin, Arruns, spotted Brutus in the front line of the Roman army- he cried 'Avenge O God of Battles this insult to a King' and charged the Roman consul who accepted the challenge and both 'drove clean [their spears] through their adversary's shield deep into his body' (2.7). The Battle of Lake Regillus is similar in type in that it sees great cavalry charges against particular leaders- we Tarquin Superbus (now an old man) charge Postumius the Roman dictator, Aebutius the Master of Horse charge the Tuscan commander Octavius Mamilius, Marcus Valerius was killed attempting to kill one of the younger Tarquins and Titus Herminius killed Mamilius at last. (2.19) Its one of the most exciting accounts of a battle in Livy- but it is all about charges, personal duals and the use and disposal of cavalry forces upon the field. Livy confirms this for us by telling us that the dictator- Postumius- vowed a temple as soon as the battle finished to Castor, one of the Gemini, and an individual associated religiously with horses. (2.21) The accounts of the early Roman battles in Livy therefore support an account of Roman military history that puts cavalry before infantry in the line of Roman development.

However by the time of Lake Regillius, it is already true to say that Roman armies had an infantry component. The army that marched to Lake Regillius was a 'powerful army of combined cavalry and infantry' (2.19)- if we do not hear of the infantry in the battle, their presence testifies to the development of infantry fighting underneath the account of cavalry charges at Regillus and earlier battles. But its only after Regillus, that Livy directly comments on the importance of infantry- and he does so in the context of social strife. I have described the accounts of earlier battles- compare those with their charges and personalised warfare to this account Livy gives us of a battle with the Volscians the year after the battle at Lake Regillus:

Verginus, the Roman commander, bided his time: he instructed his men to ground their spears and wait in silence, until the enemy were upon them. Then they were to be up and at them, using the short sword only, hand to hand. The Volscians had come on at the double, shouting as they came, and persuaded that sheer terror had fixed the Romans to the spot; by the time they were within striking distance they were already tired, and when they found they were met with vigorous opposition and saw the flash of Roman swords, the shock was as great as if they had fallen into an ambush. (Livy 2.30)

That description is so obviously different from how Livy described previous battles. Verginus the commander is not a hero here but a general- the soldiers are disciplined and instructed tactically to do something which they perform. We see no noble charges at other leaders- indeed apart from Verginus there are no other noblemen mentioned. This is a textbook infantry engagement from the classical era- and a textbook example of why infantry formations, strictly commanded and tactically aware, would beat a cavalry charge. By the Volscian invasion we have clear indications from Livy that this is how the Roman army was fighting all engagements- a slightly earlier engagement with the Volscians substantiates that conclusion:

One charge was enough; the enemy fled. The Roman infantry gave chase as far as it could, striking at the fugitives backs and the mounted troops pursued them to their camp, which, in its turn, was soon surrounded. (Livy 2.26)

The key thing here is the second sentence- the passage I have highlighted in bold. You would not use infantry to chase or charge unless they were the mainstay of your army. We are seeing here an army of infantry and light skirmishing cavalry who will follow the enemy's retreat- we are not seeing a classically Homerical army. Somewhere between the battle of Lake Regillus and the war with the Volscians, Livy decided that the way that Rome fought its wars had changed- cavalry had been replaced by infantry as the core Roman fighting force.

And that has consequences for Roman politics. I don't want to dwell on the indirect revolutions possibly caused by this change in Roman warfare. What I want to do is to show that some of the administrative changes that Livy suggests were happening at Rome were to do with this tactical evolution. The Servilian reforms, Livy suggests happened in the mid-sixth century, had divided Romans into classes and we have already seen created for Livy the situation which led to the Republic. It is neccessary to appreciate how these new forces were raised. The social crisis of the 490s reveals in detail what happened in order for the consuls to raise a new legion. The legions that fought the Volscians were adhoc forces raised by the consuls who would declare a need for men to serve. In some cases Livy suggests an edict was passed in the senate or proclaimed by a dictator (2.30), in others the consuls would take their stand on the tribunal and name individuals to serve in the army and call for volunteers (2.27). What we have to recognise is that in both cases- the state was subject to the whim of the populace- an adhoc army could only be raised by a popular government. A citizen was most likely to be engaged in war if summoned by his consul individually- something that could interrupt and even ruin him economically (2.23). Livy's approach suggests therefore that the nature of the legion changed the nature of Roman politics- citizenship became a matter of service within an army and as that grew in importance, so did the importance of the citizen himself by virtue of his service.

The development of the Roman army therefore is crucial in the Roman state. A last word of warning about Livy's history here. Firstly it is neccessary to remember that the legion may have shared a name but probably not a tactical awareness with the legions of the later Republic. Livy may well be transplanting back in time legionary tactics- like the use of the short sword- which were common in his own day. I would also be cautious about Livy's dates here- he himself warns us that chronology in this period is doubtful- but I see no reason particularly given Postumius's temple to critique his wider thesis that Rome's military organisation changed during the sixth and fifth centuries.

It is far more likely that the original legion, rather than being like an Augustan legion, was like a Greek phalanx- and that shouldn't dispel our impression of the social change that was consequent on this development- because we have the example of the Greek city states to verify that the creation of an infantry force, and the dismissal of an aristocratic cavalry force to the margins of warfare, had vast political and social consequences. Both timocratic Sparta and democratic Athens were the creations of the military structure that the use of hoplites enforced. The fact that there were several solutions to this problem, implies that determinism would be wrong- but it is equally wrong to say that the development of an infantry army did not have a large effect upon the state that developed it. To put it simply, the Roman Republic's peculiar history and constitutional form was in part a creation of the legion that defended it.

2 comments:

Crushed said...

Livy has a tendancy to transplant his own period further back.

Of course, it must be remebered that there is a wall in Roman knowledge of Rome- 390 BC. After that, Livy had a wealth of documents to draw on, and he clearly did.

Before that, he was relying more on oral sources- and oral sources tend to update to the present, as much medieval literature demonstrates.

I'm not sure how much faith we can put on anything much before the Gallic invasion of 390BC.

Even Tarquinus Superbus and Brutus could be largely legendary figures.

I would guess that Livian history upto and including 390BC ECHOES reality, but still probably presents a jumble of chaotic memories organised in what he saw as a viable narrative form.

Gracchi said...

Crushed its an interesting point as to what Livy knew- I'd suggest that what we see with the battle records is Livy's arrangement of a selection of myths- what's quite interesting though is the distinct myths- some relying on infantry some on cavalry. Its one of those broader trends is my guess especially given that we can use Greece as the alternative history.

Alternatively- and I did think this whilst writing this post- this is Livy's view of the state- which presents us with an interesting view which I want to discuss when I discuss the crisis he writes about in the late 400s that Livy beleived citizenship and soldiering were linked.

You raise an interesting point- in this post unusually I've erred on the side of Livy as a historian- probably I erred too much and should have written about Livy the conjecturalist more. Thanks for the correction.