I think most of us would agree with the statement that the Roman army was one of the most effective fighting forces in history. But if that was the case then one question presents itself. Why did nobody (successfully) copy the Roman army?
Some of Rome’s enemies attempted to copy the Roman army but none succeeded. While the equipment and even the tactics that the Roman army used could be copied, the economical and personal resources to which Rome had access and that allowed Rome to replace entire armies could not be matched by anybody. Additionally, it was unthinkable in strictly hierarchical societies that non-aristocratic officers like the centurions could make their own tactical decisions during a battle without direct orders from their superiors.
Let`s take a closer look at an example of a king who tried to copy Rome’s army and then find out why he failed at it. But first I would like to give a brief introduction to why the Roman army was so successful in the first place.
Why was the Roman army so successful?
Before we can turn to the question of why nobody successfully copied the Roman army we first have to find out what made the Roman army so successful in the first place. Since I wrote an entire article on that topic I will not go into much detail but would like to recommend you my article here.
In short, the 5 reasons why the Roman army was so successful were the following…
- The Economic & Personal resources to overwhelm or at least outlast any opponent
- Highly flexible & adaptable infantry tactics
- The Centurions: Experienced officers with the freedom to make tactical decisions on their own
- High levels of discipline thanks to a system of reward and punishment
- Effective logistics & an extensive road network
Ok, there are the five reasons. And especially the first 3 are important to remember when talking about the question of why nobody succeeded in copying the Roman army.
However, the question of why nobody was successful in copying the Roman army already indicates that somebody must have tried to do so.
So let`s now briefly look at one example of an enemy of Rome who did his best to copy the Roman army and turn the 5 reasons for the incredible success of the Roman army against Rome.
Did anybody try to copy the Roman army?
The five points I mentioned above made the Roman army extremely successful and allowed Rome to turn from a small village at the banks of the Tiber river (which was a great position for multiple reasons, more on the reasons here) into a power that first dominated its neighbors and than the entire Mediterranean.
Here you can find out more about the expansion of Rome from local to global power.
But if the Roman army was so successful, then why did nobody copy it? Well, several enemies of Rome tried to copy the Roman army. One of them was Mithridates VI of Pontos who waged several wars (the 3 Mithridatic wars) between the years 88 and 63 BC against Rome.
And on first sight, his chances of copying the Roman army were not that bad since the factor that most of us would consider the most decisive for the success of the Roman army, the weapons and armor the individual Roman soldiers used, was not really among the reasons for the success of the Roman army.
Indeed, all of the weapons and armor that a Roman soldier used were not exclusive to the Roman army but were used throughout the Mediterranean. The reason for that is that Rome hadn`t invented the weapons and armor its soldiers used but had adopted them from their enemies.
One famous example of that is the Roman short sword, the Gladius, which according to the Roman writer Polybios had been adopted from Iberic tribes. Here you can find out more about the Gladius and how it was best used.
Other parts like the shirts of chainmail had been adopted from Celtic tribes while the scutum, the large shield that covered a man from chin to knee had been adopted from the Samnites, a tribe from modern-day Campania in southern Italy.
So Mithridates VI of Pontos knew exactly how his Roman enemies were equipped. And according to the ancient writer and historian Plutarch he used that knowledge to raise 100,000 infantrymen who were equipped like Roman soldiers and trained in the Roman way of war by exiled Roman legionaries and centurions Mithridates had recruited.
Do you want to find out more about the tactics that Roman legions used in battle and how the individual Roman soldiers fought? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Ok, so according to Plutarch Mithridates of Pontos raised 100,000 men who were trained and equipped exactly like Roman soldiers.
Now one might assume that that army was just as successful as the Roman army, right?
Well, we don`t have any sources telling us how successful the copied Roman army of Mithridates was. But the fact that Mithridates was defeated in 72 BC by the Roman general Lucius Licinius Lucullus in the battle of Cabiria and had to flee into exile in Armenia should tell us that it could not have been overly successful over the long run.
And although Mithridates was able to return from exile and once again defeat a Roman army that did not save him. In 66 BC Mithridates VI of Pontos was finally defeated by the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magus (also known as Pompey) in 66 BC and committed suicide soon after.
By the way. Have you ever asked yourself why Roman names could get so long that some Romans even had a total of four names (like Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus)? Here you can find out more about how Roman names worked and what the individual parts of the name meant.
Ok, so Mithridates was able to raise an army that was basically an exact copy of a Roman army. And yet he was not able to defeat Rome over the long run. That bears one question:
Well, there were three reasons for that. Let`s take a look.
Why did nobody succeed in copying the Roman army? 3 Reasons!
While some of Rome’s enemies like Mithridates VI of Pontos were able to raise an army that used the exact same weapons and armor as the Roman army, was trained by exiled Roman legionaries and centurions, and even used similar tactics, none of them was able to defeat Rome over the long run.
And there are three very specific reasons for that.
The inability to copy Rome’s economic & personal resources
As mentioned above, it was neither superior equipment nor higher discipline that set the Roman army apart from its enemies (especially not during the time of the Roman republic).
The true advantage that Rome had over its enemies was its access to almost infinite economic and personal resources that kings like Mithridates VI of Pontos could just not match over the long run.
From its earliest expansion onwards, the time when Rome attacked the neighboring Etruscan city of Veii (here you can find out more about these important but often overlooked early stages of the Roman expansion) Rome emphasized measures that increased the number of Roman citizens who were wealthy enough for military service.
Until the Marian reforms of 107 BC, every Roman citizen with a certain degree of wealth was eligible for 12 years of participating in wars. Here you can find out more about how that worked and how these men were categorized into 4 different groups of infantry depending on their wealth (and age).
By integrating parts of the newly conquered land into the Roman territory and handing out plots of land to families who until then were penniless (so their men were not eligible for military service) Rome raised the number of farmers who were wealthy enough to be drafted into Rome’s military.
Additionally, some conquered cities were also given the Roman civil right turning their inhabitants into Roman citizens who were also eligible to fight in the Roman legions. And even those territories that were defeated but did not receive the Roman civil right were bound to Rome by different military alliances so that they had to contribute men for Rome’s wars.
If you are interested in the topic of how Rome governed its newly conquered territories (and how Rome did that without the need of stationing garrison troops) then I would like to recommend you my article here.
That kind of expansion of Rome’s territory and the number of its wealthy citizens drastically increased the reservoir of recruits for the Roman army and allowed Rome to even replace entire armies that were lost in battle. One good example of that is the battle of Cannae where according to the ancient writer Polybios a total of 70,000 Roman soldiers were killed by the army of the Carthaginian general Hannibal.
If you are interested in the casualties that the army of Hannibal suffered at the battle of Cannae then I would like to recommend you my article here. There you can also find the normal mortality rate of Roman soldiers outside of such crushing defeats as the battle of Cannae.
Although Rome lost 70,000 men at the battle of Cannae (216 BC) against the army of Hannibal the large reservoir of recruits that Rome had gained through its expansion over Italy allowed Rome to replace the losses, raise an even larger army, and in the end defeat Hannibal at the battle of Zama (202 BC).
However, that did not only end the Second Punic War. The high casualties throughout the Punic Wars led to the downfall of the Roman middle class. You can find out more about that in my article here.
But since the Roman middle class, the farmers and craftsmen had made up the majority of the Roman legionaries the number of potential recruits dwindled. As a result, the wealth requirements for military service were lowered several times until they were completely dropped in 107 BC as a result of the Marian Reforms.
After the Marian reforms of 107 BC, every Roman citizen could join the Roman legions without any wealth requirements. That meant that it was now the duty of the state to provide the penniless men who flocked into the legions with weapons, armor, pay, and a retirement. And that was only possible because of the access to the vast economic resources that Rome had accumulated throughout its expansion.
By the way, the pay of Roman soldiers but especially the retirement of Roman soldiers should become a major problem that would eventually greatly contribute to the end of the Roman republic. But that is a story for another time.
Ok, so while some enemies of Rome were able to exactly copy the armor and weapons of the Roman soldiers these enemies did not have the same access to economic and personal resources that Rome had. As a result, they – unlike Rome – could not replace huge losses.
If you are interested in that topic then I would like to recommend you my article here for additional information.
But for now, I would like to turn to the next point, the inability to adopt the more flexible and adaptable Roman infantry tactics.
The inability to adopt more flexible infantry tactics like the manipular system instead of the phalanx
Now you might wonder why I named this paragraph the inability to adopt more flexible infantry tactics when I wrote above that Mithridates also hired exiled Roman centurions who trained his copied Roman army in the Roman tactics.
And yes, Mithridates indeed tried to adopt the Roman infantry tactics that I present in my article here. However, he failed at implementing the centurions as the backbone of the army with the freedom to make their own tactical decisions, more on that under the next point.
But most realms that fought against Rome didn`t use the much more flexible and adaptable manipular system (and later the cohort system).
Originally the Roman army was fighting in the phalanx formation just like many people around the Mediterranean sea did. You can find out more about when Rome started using the Phalanx and what formation the Roman army used before the Phalanx in my article here.
During the Second Samnite War Rome had to fight in the rugged terrain of Samnium which was not suitable for the rigid and inflexible phalanx formation. As a result, Rome developed the more flexible manipular system (that is often called a phalanx with joints) around the year 315 BC in which the army was organized into maniples of 120 men that could – unlike a phalanx – operate independently from each other.
Each maniple within a legion was 120 men strong which made the unit small enough to operate somewhat independently within the framework of the legion.
Do you want to find out more about how that worked and why the cohort as a bigger tactical unit replaced the maniple after the Marian reforms of 107 BC? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
So while Mithridates VI of Pontos tried to adopt these more flexible Roman infantry tactics (although he failed to also adopt the role of the centurions who were crucial for these tactics to work) most other realms around the Mediterranean sea continued to rely on the more rigid phalanx (or slightly modified versions) that offered less tactical flexibility.
One reason why the phalanx was not replaced by the manipular system in most parts of the Mediterranean was that the phalanx still worked extremely well against most enemies.
Additionally, the realms that still relied on the phalanx also introduced additions to their armies that were supposed to increase the level of tactical flexibility. These attempts had already been made during the Wars of the Diadochi that followed the death of Alexander the Great with the introduction of a new class of infantryman that was somewhere between the heavily armed phalangites and the lightly armed light infantrymen.
Only when a phalanx, for example, the Macedonian phalanx that had already been used by Alexander the Great as a staple in his army, was faced with a Roman army operating under the more flexible and more adaptive manipular system the greater tactical varieties that the manipular system offered usually won the day.
The other reason why the phalanx remained in use all around the Mediterranean brings us back to the centurions and their incredibly important role within the Roman legion.
The inability to adopt the centurions & their permission to make independent tactical decisions during a battle
Of all the mentioned reasons the centurions were probably the most important reason why nobody was able to successfully copy the Roman army.
But before we look at the role of the centurions we first have to compare Roman society to the society of the enemies of Rome. While Rome was not a democracy as we would define the term democracy, more on the political system of the Roman republic in my article here, Rome still offered a far greater social mobility than any other ancient state.
It is no coincidence that many of the greatest Romans like the famous lawyer and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, a so-called „Homo Novus“, rose to the highest positions within the Roman state despite not being a member of one of the old Roman aristocratic families.
Here you can find out more about that and how social mobility even allowed the son of a freed slave to become Roman emperor!
That level of social mobility was also present in the Roman legions since the centurions, the officers who commanded every unit from the size of a century to the size of an entire cohort, were men who had been promoted from the ranks because of their capabilities and their courage. Even the Primus Pilus, the highest-ranking centurion within a Roman legion who served as an advisor to the politicians commanding the Legion had once been a regular legionary!
And while each centurion within a Roman legion stood in a tight chain of command every centurion also had the freedom to make his own tactical decisions when in battle.
That meant that in case it was necessary or an opportunity presented itself a centurion could order his maniple to loosen up or maneuver into a more advantageous position without having to wait on a direct order from his superior. Now that didn`t mean that he could just move the unit he commanded off the battlefield, he still had to follow the battle plan.
But he had certain freedoms in doing so.
Giving non-aristocratic officers like the centurions the freedom to make their own tactical decisions and to react to new situations without direct orders from their superiors made the Roman army extremely effective but could not be adopted by other societies who tried to copy the Roman army.
So regular soldiers could be promoted to officers which gave them the responsibility to make their own tactical decisions if needed. Now having said that, that does not mean that the Roman society (and military) did not also have its limitations regarding social mobility and military promotions. It certainly had.
For example: While every regular legionary could in theory one day become the Primus Pilus, the highest-ranking centurion within a legion, the positions of military tribunes and legates were reserved for men from the equestrian class who in the case of the military tribunes wanted to start their political career.
But the social mobility and the responsibilities that non-aristocratic centurions had in the Roman army were unmatched by most other ancient societies. The reason for that can be found within these societies.
While Rome had a high degree of social mobility most other ancient societies had a much more rigid social hierarchy that granted special privileges to aristocrats. In such a society it was unthinkable that non-aristocrat officers who were promoted from the ranks could make their own tactical decisions without direct orders from an aristocratic superior during a battle.
Instead, the positions of officers were usually reserved for aristocrats who were then bound to a tight chain of command and who usually didn`t have the experience (or the freedom) to make their own tactical decisions.
So to sum it up.
While the equipment and even the tactics that the Roman army used could be copied, the economical and personal resources that Rome had access to could not be matched by anybody who tried to copy the Roman army. Additionally, it was unthinkable in strictly hierarchical societies that non-aristocratic officers like the centurions who had been promoted from the ranks would be given the freedom to make their own tactical decisions during a battle.
Because of that nobody was able to successfully copy the Roman army.
Do you want to find out more about the lifes of Roman soldiers? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about Roman soldiers and marriage and my article here where I talk about the diet of Roman soldiers.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Johannes Kromayer: Heerwesen und Kriegsführung der Griechen und Römer (München 1963).
Nathan Rosenstein: Rome at War. Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic (2004 Chapell Hill & London).