Looking at Ancient Rome for Modern Infantry Advice

This blog has covered a lot of topics already, most of them about modern military and security issues. In reading them, however, some of them start to look pretty familiar. Usually that’s because they’ve been around for a while – in some cases a very long while. In fact, a lot of the grumbles we have today as soldiers, sailors and law enforcement professionals (not so much airmen) would have been familiar 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome.

I got to thinking about this while I was reading an old post about the infantry load. This is a hot topic right now – again – because it’s obvious that the modern infantryman would be a lot more agile on the battlefield if he wasn’t carrying a hundred pounds of gear and armor. The bulk of all that equipment physically restricts a soldier’s movement – the same applies to SWAT operators and, increasingly, beat cops. The weight of it slows movement and accelerates fatigue. The Romans faced these issues too, and the Marian Reforms in 107 BC – a radical set of military innovations that created the Roman Army we’re all familiar with – tried to address it.

For Gaius Marius, the commander in chief who reshaped the legions, the problems were slightly different. Now, dismounted troops can move quicker if their heavy gear is carried in vehicles. Pre-Marian legions were slowed down by the size of their logistics tail, which needed to graze daily. After the reforms, the logistics echelon was radically slimmed down and only animals which carried essential kit were kept. Each infantry contubernium, or squad, was issued a single mule to carry its tent, grindstone and bulk rations. The men carried everything else themselves, boosting their personal marching load to around 90 pounds. Counterintuitively, that sped up the march pace of a legion because, while the troops were now more heavily laden, they still moved faster than a rebellious donkey. The men weren’t exactly delighted with the change, and gave themselves the nickname “Marius’s Mules.” It’s worth noting that a Roman legion did three route marches a month, each covering 24 Roman miles (about 22 modern miles) in five hours. Then they’d build a camp, spend the night there and march back to barracks in the morning.

Roman ArmorSo Roman marching loads were heavy, but their fighting load was trimmed down as much as possible. They didn’t adopt the short gladius – with a blade just over half the length of the longswords favored by their enemies to save weight; that was a tactical decision. They did reduce the bulk and weight of their armor though. Rome had the technology to make the sort of fully articulated armor used by medieval knights, but they didn’t. Instead, the legionary wore a vest with shoulder guards, made from overlapping metal plates, and a lightweight steel helmet. His main protection was concentrated in his shield, made of lighter plywood, which also doubled as a ramming weapon for breaking enemy lines.

Roman armies carried much more equipment per man than their barbarian enemies, but they distributed it differently for deployment and combat. On the march, as much as possible, gear was loaded onto disciplined quick-marching men rather than stubborn, dawdling mules; in action, the legionaries’ carrying poles, which doubled as rucksack and much of their belt gear (water and rations were carried on it) were dumped on the ground. That instantly transformed the men from overloaded pack animals into fast-moving infantry, superbly trained and equipped with gear that was a lot more capable than their opponents but at the same or less weight (a Roman segmented armor vest is heavy, but much lighter than a chainmail coat).

Obviously, what worked for Rome isn’t going to work for us; but what Marius proved was that a radical rethink of how things were done might make a difference. Perhaps we could speed up our infantry by moving the opposite way – robot mules are being tested, and if some noise and endurance issues can be sorted they might be game-changers for dismounted infantry squads. Or perhaps we could reduce armor coverage and gain mobility in exchange. One thing’s for sure, though; we need to keep examining the way we do things, because history shows this is one debate that’s never going to go away.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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