This is the first part of the second part of our four? four part 1 look at the great third and second century BC contest between the Hellenistic armies of the heirs of Alexander and the Roman legions. Last time, we looked at the Hellenistic army as a complete system, incorporating not just the famed Macedonian sarisa-phalanx, but also light and medium infantry and a decisive cavalry-striking force. This week, we turn to the Romans to look at how the Roman legion of the Middle Republic is structured and its tactical system. Then, for the second half of this part (next week) we’re going to zoom out a bit and look at some of the operational and strategic level advantages the Roman legion enjoys.
And here it might be a good time to refresh those terms. When we talk about tactics, we mean the methods used to win battles at the lowest layer of military analysis. Whereas, when we talk about strategy, we are talking about the upper-most layer of military analysis, which is concerned with end goals (‘ends’), the methods to reach those goals in the big-picture-abstract (‘ways’) and the resources required to do so (‘means’). In between these two layers is operations, which is where all of the thorny problems of moving large armies over vast distances come in: logistics, long distance maneuvers, coordination of forces and so on. To simplify a bit, tactics is the how of war, operations is the where and strategy is the why: tactics is how you fight a battle, operations where you fight that battle and strategy is why you fought that battle in the first place (for more on these terms, you can consult our handy Military Terminology Glossary!)
This week, we’re looking primarily at Roman tactics, because the interaction of the Roman tactical system with Hellenistic armies, I will argue later, gave the Romans a fairly clear edge, especially in the second century once the full system seems to be in place. Whereas Hellenistic armies aimed to win with a decisive cavalry strike on the flanks, Roman armies were fundamentally attritional, aiming to win by grinding down the center of the enemy army. As we’ll see, that attritional approach influences tactics, but it also impacts weapons. The interaction of tactics and weapons itself is a huge topic, but fortunately, we’ve already discussed the key Roman weapons involved, the pilum heavy javelin and the gladius Hispaniensis, so I’ll be referring back to those posts a bit here.