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Experimental Archeology: How could Rome field vast armies in no time?

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Avatar for vonFunfkirchen
Written by   1
2 months ago

As an ex-reenactor I had my fair share of living the medieval or ancient Roman life. While at it, there's been always some questions comming up about how certain things have worked. In this article we'll go back a few years in time, when me and a few other guys tried to find an answer to the question above.

So it all started while we were preparing for an event, and this only time I was in charge of it. This didn't only mean dealing with the organizers, but also getting the people equipped and ready. Now most of the did re-enacting before, but that was medieval and the event we were preparing for had an ancient Roman theme.
We were supposed to be a Roman Auxilia. The event was 5 days long including a couple of presentations for children and parents as in giving them an idea of how the auxiliary force that held the area nearly 2000 years earlier could've lived like.

Since everyone had a real life, some organization was needed to make sure, everyone arrives at some point. A few of the team members came along with me for day 1. Among them were even people who never held a sword in their lives, so I decided to use the time until the others arrive on day 3, to do a small scale experiment. The goal was to turn these guys into proper soldiers of the Empire by day 4, so they will be prepared for the main event on day 5. Of course we had to speed things up a little because of that, but from the results I feel like I got a good answer to the question at hand.

On the first day we all got up way before our presentations begann and I handed out the equipment, which was a lorica hamata(or chainmail), a scutum(shield), a gladius(short sword) and a spear. Then I asked them to lay down the shield and the spear so we can go through some very basic movements with the sword. In a few hours they had a basic understanding of how this type of sword is supposed to work, so we could move on to the shield. Actually this one went down even better than the sword basics, however at this point we were far from a unit that's capable to fight. Because what made Roman forces so effective? Formation and the ability to move and fight together and protect one another. I was a bit worried about this one as it can be quite complex, especially when you also give them a lesson in various commands in latin.

First I just had them move in a straight line back and forth and kept my optio-stick around to hit them with it if they stepped out of line. The point of this was obviously to ensure that the formation stays together and people don't start to wander off. They got a surprisingly good grip of this excercise, which was a good sign. With this we could quickly move on to turning in different directions and then we proceeded to changing lines. For this I stood up as the enemy and their task was to break off of me and be replaced by the folks standing in the second line, while the ones from the first line, moved back to the end of the formation. We did a few rounds of this rotation, but it sure needed some more practice.

In the meantime we had to do our first presentation for a group of people(they came in different groups as they were competing by getting points at each station they visited). Time for the first test!

We did the usual basic explanation of what role an auxiliary force played alongside a legion, the differences of their equipment and their origins. Then we moved on to some individual combat, mostly to see what my new "soldiers" have learned and to show the kids some real action of course. Well... guess who took a stab with his knee? Yepp... I did. It wasn't too bad, but now I was sure that the guys absolved the basic combat part for good. After that we showed them how the formation worked, how they moved together and how they protected each other. From this point on, we had a group of pretty much every hour until the late afternoon, so we could only use the breaks for training which wasn't very convenient, since it was a very hot summer. Imagine being outside in full gear all day. At least it was a good for the stamina and everyone got an idea what it was like to spend the entire day in a camp, on duty.

In the meantime they always got their basic training with spear, with and without a shield and also learned how to throw them properly. So by the end of day 1 we had some solid foundations to build on. This continued all the way to day 3 as we kept repeating everything I taught them so far. I kept a tally of how many times i have to hit them with a stick when they fall out of line or misunderstand a command. By this time, this number was below 5, which meant, they clearly learned most of what they had to. In the evening, the rest of the team arrived, so the ones that were supposed to be on the roman side(the second half of the team were barbarians and were preparing to be the enemy for the main event on day 5) enlisted in my "training programme" while the others just practiced their part, which mainly consisted of charging at the formation and shoot (blunt)arrows at them. Then we could move on and started to prepare for the last day, which was a little story backed battle scene between my freshly trained auxilia and the evil barbarians.
And then day 5 came and we got to do the entire show in front of a massive crowd. I don't want to bore anyone with the details, but the main thing was that my 5 days old unit did a great job in putting what they learned to good use.

The conclusion? Actually simpler than you would think. It was very easy to field these vast armies, since they needed little training. The most important part of it was to be able to stick together and once that was done they didn't need to be experts in handling a sword or a shield, especially, since they were quite limited in a closed formation, so they didn't need to know much more than that. So in my experience, it's no wonder that they could send out 10-15 legions within a month, given that they all they had to learn was to act as a group.

Of course we didn't go into details such as building and maintaining a camp, or fortifying positions etc, but it gave us a good idea how things could've worked and what gave Rome the ability to set up multiple large armies in quick succession.

Remember: Learn your basics, learn to stick together and you'll learn the rest in action.
Gladius recondite!

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Written by   1
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In other words: teach fresh recruits how to act like a team, and how to go through the motions, and then it's all a matter of occasional drills.

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