The Roman Legion was the standing force of the empire numbering from one hundred and fifty thousand to two hundred and forty thousand men who were stationed in the various provinces. But what was a Roman Legion like? How many men made up a Roman Legion and how did a Roman Legion operate?
Facts about the Roman Legion
Each legion had a Roman Standard, a bar across the top of the spear, with the letters on it S P Q R—Senatus, Populus Que Romanus—meaning the Roman Senate and People, a purple flag below and a figure above, such as an eagle, or the wolf and twins, or some emblem sacred to the Romans. The legions were on foot, but the troops of patricians and knights on horseback were attached to them and had to protect them.
The History of the Roman Legion - Who was allowed to serve in a Roman Legion?
For many centuries the Roman Legions was composed exclusively of Roman citizens. Up to the year B.C. 107, no one was permitted to serve among the regular soldiers except those who were regarded as possessing a strong personal interest in the stability of the Roman republic. Every Roman citizen was trained to arms and was liable to be called upon to serve in the armies. According to the Roman constitution, every free-born citizen was a soldier and bound to serve in the Roman legion in the army from the age of seventeen to forty-six. The general period of service for the infantry was twenty years, after which the soldier received a discharge, together with a bounty in money or land.
Roman Legion Support
Each Roman legion were supported by quartermasters, training offices, physicians, surgeons, blacksmiths, metal workers, veterinarians, clerks, trumpeters, orderlies, intelligence officers, torturers and executioners. Every legion also had a baggage train of 640 mules or about 1 mule for every 8 legionaries. The names and descriptions of many of the men who carried out the support functions to the Roman Legion are detailed in Roman Army Ranks
The History of the Roman Legion - The Standing Army and the number of Legions
The distant wars of the republic, such as the prolonged operations of Caesar in Gaul, made a standing army a necessity. During the civil wars between Caesar and Pompey the legions were forty in number; under Augustus the number decreased to twenty-five. Alexander Severus increased the legions to thirty-two. The army of Roman citizens was eventually replaced by a standing army made up of landless city dwellers and newly created citizens from outlying provinces. In the early age of the republic the legion was disbanded as soon as the special service was performed, and was in all essential respects a militia. Marius admitted all orders of citizens; and after the close of the Social War in B.C. 87, the whole free population of Italy was allowed to serve in a Roman Legion. The Emperor Claudius incorporated with the Roman legion the vanquished Goths, and after him the barbarians filled up the ranks of the legions on account of the degeneracy of the times.
The Number of Soldiers in a Roman Legion
The Roman legion was a most perfect organization, a great mechanical force which could sustain furious attacks after patriotism and public spirit had fled. The number of soldiers of which a Roman Legion was composed of varied at different periods. It rarely exceeded six thousand men. The number of soldiers in a Roman Legion changed over the years:
- Under Romulus the legion contained 3000 foot-soldiers
- From the expulsion of the Kings from Rome until the second year of the Second Punic War the regular number in the Roman Legion may be fixed at 4000 or 4200 infantry
- From the latter period until the consulship of Marius the ordinary number in the Roman Legion was from 5000 to 5200
- For some centuries after Marius the numbers in a Roman Legion varied from 5000 to 6200, generally approaching to the higher limit of 6000. Amid all the variations with regard to the infantry, 300 horsemen formed the regular complement of the legion.
The Structural Reorganisation of the Roman Legions by Gaius Marius
Gaius Marius (157 BC–January 13, 86 BC) was a Roman general and politician elected consul. Marius made dramatic reforms to the Roman armies. The structural reorganisation of the army and the Roman Legion by Marius resulted in the following changes:
The legions were thrown open to citizens of all grades, without distinction of fortune
- All of the soldiers in the Roman Legionswere armed and equipped in the same manner - all being now furnished with the pilum
The legionaries, when in battle-order, were no longer arranged in three lines, each consisting of ten maniples with an open space between each maniple, but in two lines, each consisting of five cohorts, with a space between each cohort
The younger soldiers were no longer placed in the front, but in reserve, the van being composed of veterans
Due to the changes the distinction between Hastati, Principes, and Triarii ceased to exist
The Velites disappeared
The skirmishers, included under the general term Levis Armatura, consisted for the most part of foreign mercenaries possessing peculiar skill in the use of some national weapon, such as the Balearic slingers, the Cretan archers (sagittarii), and the Moorish dartmen
When operations requiring great activity were undertaken, such as could not be performed by mere skirmishers, detachments of legionaries were lightly equipped, and marched without baggage for these special services
The cavalry of the legion underwent a change in every respect to that which took place with regard to the light-armed troops
The Roman Equites attached to the army were very few in number, and were chiefly employed as aids-de-camp and on confidential missions
The bulk of the cavalry consisted of foreigners, and hence we find the legions and the cavalry spoken of as completely distinct from each other
Organisation of a Roman Legion
The Roman Legion consisted of 10 cohorts. The basic organisation of an Imperial legion was as follows:
- 1 contubernium = 8 soldiers: 1 contubernium (mess unit / tent group), probably led by a file leader
- 1 centuria (century) = 10 contubernia: 1 centuria (century), commanded by the centurion
- 1 cohort = 6 centuriae: 1 cohort commanded by its senior centurion
- 1 legio (legion) = 10 cohortes: 1 legio (legion), commanded by the legatus (legate)
Roman Legion - The Infantry
The main dependence of the Roman legion was on the infantry, which wore heavy armor, a helmet, a shield, a light spear called a pilum or javelin and a short cut-and-thrust sword with a double edge. Besides the armor and weapons of the legionary, he usually carried on the marches provisions for two weeks, three or four stakes used in forming the palisade of the camp, besides various tools. The Roman Legionary carried altogether a burden of sixty or eighty pounds per man.
Roman Legion - The Cavalry
The cavalry attached to each legion consisted of three hundred men, who originally were selected from the leading men in the State. The cohortes equitates were the mixed cohorts of cavalry and infantry used in the first, second and third centuries AD. They were mounted at the expense of the State, and formed a distinct order. The cavalry was divided into ten squadrons.
Roman Legion - Artillery
To each legion was attached ten military engines of the largest size and fifty-five of the smaller. All of these large weapons discharged stones and darts with great effect. The artillery were used both for hurling missiles in battle, and for the attack on fortresses.