It is truly unfortunate that no comprehensive manual on Roman battle tactics survives. We have evidence of a manual written by Sextus Julius Frontinus (governor of Britain 74-78 A.D), but all that remains from that document are fragments and an appendix. Sextus claimed that his manual was the only one written up to his time.
Later, in the fifth century A.D, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus compiled a manual from several sources which included, by his admission, Cato the Elder, Cornelius Celsus, Paternus, the aforementioned Frontinus, Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian. Curiously, Caesar was omitted! This work called De Ra Militari or Epidoma Ra Militaris. Indifferently written, it lacks scholarship and represents the views of a person who was neither soldier or historian, but it’s all we have.
Let’s look at Vegetius and see what he has to say.
Order of Battle:
“In drawing up an army in order of battle, three things are to be considered: the sun, the dust and the wind. The sun in your face dazzles the sight: if the wind is against you, it turns aside and blunts the force of your weapons, while it assists those of your adversary; and the dust driving in your front fills the eyes of your men and blinds them.”
Distances and Intervals:
“Having explained the general disposition of the lines, we now come to the distances and dimensions. One thousand paces contain a single rank of one thousand six hundred and fifty-six foot soldiers, each man being allowed three feet. Six ranks drawn up on the same extent of ground will require nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-six men. To form only three ranks of the same number will take up two thousand paces, but it is much better to increase the number of ranks than to make your front too extensive. We have before observed the distance between each rank should be six feet, one foot of which is taken up by the men. Thus if you form a body of ten thousand men into six ranks they will occupy thirty-six feet. in depth and a thousand paces in front.”
The three foot space per man has been debated some suggesting it is not enough, six feet being more appropriate.
“Men must be sufficiently tried before they are led against the enemy.
Valor is superior to numbers.
The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.
Few men are born brave; many become so through care and force of discipline.
An army is strengthened by labor and enervated by idleness.
Troops are not to be led to battle unless confident of success.
An army unsupplied with grain and other necessary provisions will be vanquished without striking a blow.
A general whose troops are superior both in number and bravery should engage in the oblong square, which is the first formation.
He who judges himself inferior should advance his right wing obliquely against the enemy's left. This is the second formation.
If your left wing is strongest, you must attack the enemy's right according to the third formation.
The general who can depend on the discipline of his men should begin the engagement by attacking both the enemy's wings at once, the fourth formation.
He whose light infantry is good should cover his center by forming them in its front and charge both the enemy's wings at once. This is the fifth formation.
He who cannot depend either on the number or courage of his troops, if obliged to engage, should begin the action with his right and endeavor to break the enemy's left, the rest of his army remaining formed in a line perpendicular to the front and extended to the rear like a javelin. This is the sixth formation.
If your forces are few and weak in comparison to the enemy, you must make use of the seventh formation and cover one of your flanks either with an eminence, a city, the sea, a river or some protection of that kind.
When an enemy's spy lurks in the camp, order all your soldiers in the day time to their tents, and he will instantly be apprehended.
Consult with many on proper measures to be taken, but communicate the plans you intend to put in execution to few, and those only of the most assured fidelity; or rather trust no one but yourself.
Punishment, and fear thereof, are necessary to keep soldiers in order in quarters; but in the field they are more influenced by hope and rewards.
Good officers never engage in general actions unless induced by opportunity or obliged by necessity.”
Pretty basic stuff. What do we really learn here? Not much. We’ll get to a more important discussion in the next post.