Roman Warriors: The Myth of the Military Machine

The Roman army is often described as a ‘military machine’, but the Romans were not automatons and it took little for them to morph from disciplined soldiers into wild warriors. The Romans’ penchant for single combat, their habit of taking heads and scalps in battle, and their not infrequent bouts of indiscipline and berserk behaviour amply demonstrate their warrior credentials.

Roman centurion in combat. The Portonaccio Battle Sarcophagus
Roman centurion in combat. Portonaccio Battle Sarcophagus, c. AD 180.

A Military Machine?

The complex organisation of the Roman army, its multiplicity of specialist ranks and functions, rigorous training and, above all, its success in war, has resulted in it often being described as a ‘military machine’. It is viewed as the precursor of modern standing armies, and its men, especially the legionaries, as the first professional soldiers.

The Romans knew their army as the exercitus. The literal meaning of this Latin word is ‘exercise’ and it emphasises the importance the Romans placed on training and discipline. They worshipped the goddess Disciplina and the Campestres, the divinities of the parade ground, but Roman legionaries were not blindly obedient.

Discipline was of course hugely important. However, during the long history of the Roman army, soldiers — actual Romans, Italians, provincials or men from beyond the frontiers — were encouraged to develop reputations for virtus, a quality that encompassed manliness, excellence and, above all, valour. Virtus was the quality of the individual warrior, and it was maintained and enhanced by competition with other warriors.

Corporate soldierly discipline allowed the legions to march to the battlefield in good order, build camps and fieldworks and to assume their initial battle formations, but when loosed into combat, and beyond the effective control of their general and officers, the warrior quality of virtus took over, and the acts of individual legionaries decided the outcome of battle.

Soldiers and Warriors

Legionaries were organised into tactical subunits called maniples (‘handfuls’) or centuries. Sometimes the legionaries fought shoulder to shoulder, making a block of united strength and power, driving forward like a wedge into the enemy battle line. Sometimes the legionaries assumed a loose formation, each man occupying six feet of space, free to fight as an individual but with support close at hand. Sometimes the legionary was expected to fight entirely alone, to turn and meet enemies from all directions. The legionary’s basic equipment of heavy javelin or spear, cut-and-thrust sword and a shield that covered him from shoulder to shin, was adaptable to the needs of group or individual fighting.

The Roman fighting man was therefore a formidable combination of soldier and warrior. Roman military organisation created disciplined groups of soldiers who would fight together for a common goal, but, when opportunity allowed, it permitted the individual warrior to emerge and to sate his desire for personal glory.

Polybius, a Greek cavalry officer and historian, was a political captive in Rome in the mid-second century BC. He believed this potent mix of soldier and warrior made the Romans almost invincible. Sallust, a lieutenant of Julius Caesar, wrote of Romans being ruled by virtus, and how it made them completely fearless and wildly competitive. It could also make them uncontrollable.


At the battle of Thapsus (46 BC), Julius Caesar’s legionaries became impatient when he failed to give the order to advance. The legionaries took it upon themselves to intimidate a trumpeter at the far end of the battle line into sounding the charge. The centurions appear to have been complicit in this, for their attempts to hold back the legionaries were half-hearted. Caesar himself was hardly surprised at the disobedience; he had his trumpeter sound “good fortune” and boldly charged forward with his cavalry. The enemy was routed, but the battle-crazed Caesarians ignored their general’s orders to halt the pursuit and killed those who tried to surrender.

A similar episode occurred in AD 68. At Vesontio, during a parley between the Roman general Verginius Rufus and the Gallic rebel Vindex, the disapproving legionaries of the Rhine army broke the truce and fell upon the rebel force. It was annihilated. Two years later, during the siege of Jerusalem, legionaries ignored the vocal and visual orders of their commander, the future emperor Titus, and deliberately set fire to the Temple. Josephus, the Jewish rebel commander and historian, describes the Romans as being beyond control: “neither persuasion nor threats could restrain their violence”.

In the fourth century AD, little had changed. In AD 359, legionaries transferred from Gaul to defend the Mesopotamian fortress city of Amida preferred not to guard the ramparts, but to make sallies and fight the besieging Sassanid Persians on open ground. The gates of the city were eventually barred to prevent their risky sorties, but the legionaries threatened to kill senior officers and were permitted to make one final sortie at night.

Armed with swords and axes, they killed the Persian guards, entered the enemy camp and advanced on the tent of the king, Shapur II. They never reached it. An eye-witness account, written by the staff officer Ammianus Marcellinus, describes how the legionaries cut down countless Persians, including noble commanders, but they were eventually forced to retreat by the volume of the arrows loosed by the Persian archers. Virtus carried the legionaries only so far, and cohesive discipline was re-asserted during the retreat. Ammianus describes with admiration how the legionaries made their orderly fighting retreat “as if to music”.

Four hundred legionaries were killed in the night-long battle, perhaps a third, or even a half of their total number; by this date, the legions were a fraction of the size of the classic regiments led into battle by Julius Caesar. Yet the Persians had suffered such heavy casualties that they sought a truce of three days. The campidoctores who led the attack and were killed in the camp, or covering the retreat, were subsequently commemorated with statues.

In these campidoctores (field instructors of senior centurion rank) we see how unbalanced the mix of soldier of warrior could become. These men were responsible for training the Roman exercitus and instilling discipline, but when tasked with defending a wall instead of fighting gloriously in open battle, their virtus was affronted. They threatened mutiny and murder and lost their lives in a heroic but futile mission.

Pullo and Vorenus

Centurions were in charge of maintaining discipline, and a few seem to have taken a perverse pleasure in doling out floggings, but centurions were also held up as exemplars of virtus. They were keenly aware of their reputations and went to extreme lengths to uphold or enhance their virtus.

Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus are now well-known from the television series Rome. In the series, Pullo is a mere legionary under the command of Vorenus, but in reality he too was a senior centurion.

In the winter of 54/3 BC, the legion of Pullo and Vorenus was besieged in its camp by the Nervii, the foremost of Gaul’s warrior tribes. The Nervii were the kind of opponents the Romans respected; greater glory was attained fighting brave men. For Titus Pullo, however, it was not enough to simply defend the ramparts. He had to take the fight to the enemy, and he dared Vorenus, his great rival, to follow him.

Julius Caesar, who led a relief force to lift the siege, wrote an account the incident. He introduces Pullo and Vorenus as always quarrelling and fiercely competing for the senior centurial posts in the legions. During one of the Nervian assaults, Pullo called to Vorenus: ‘Why hesitate, Vorenus? What chance of proving your bravery are you waiting for? This day will decide our contest.’ Pullo then leaped from the rampart and charged the Gauls! Vorenus could not allow Pullo to get away with such a feat of bravado. Following meant certain death, but honour and reputation were more important. Verenus left the defences and rushed at the bemused Nervian warriors.

Caesar tells us that “at close range, Pullo threw his pilum [heavy javelin] at the enemy, skewering one Gaul who had run forward from the multitude.” Wild Pullo was soon “knocked senseless and the enemy sought to cover him with their shields [i.e. box him in] and they all threw their missiles at him, giving him no chance of retreat. Pullo’s shield was pierced and a javelin was lodged in his belt. Vorenus, his rival, ran to him and helped him out of trouble. Vorenus fought with his gladius at close-quarters, killing one and drove the others back a little. But he pressed on too eagerly and fell into a hollow. He was surrounded in turn, but Pullo came to his aid. They killed several men and retired to the ramparts with the utmost glory.”

Despite their bravery, surely censure and punishment followed? These men abandoned their posts to indulge in reckless bravado and left their centuries without commanders. However, legionary centuries were organised to look after themselves; when the centurion was killed or went glory-hunting, his deputy (optio) and other under-officers assumed command. To the Roman mind, what Pullo and Vorenus did was virtus-enhancing. It was the best kind of heroic competition, glorious and inspirational. Despite their fierce rivalry, the centurions had demonstrated the triumph of comradeship, each saving the other. Caesar concludes that “it was impossible to decide which should be considered the braver man”.

Berserk Head-Hunters

Jacques Harmand, the great modern scholar of the Roman army in the age of Caesar, opined that Pullo and Vorenus, and many of their colleagues, were berserks. Other notable examples are Scaeva, whose terrifying antics awed the enemy at Dyrrhachium, and Crastinus, the ‘rabid’ (as one Roman writer described him) centurion who led the suicidal opening charge at Pharsalus (48 BC).

Berserk behaviour was not limited to Caesar’s centurions. In the battle against Ariovistus’ Germans (58 BC), Caesar witnessed some of his ordinary legionaries hurling themselves onto the roof of the Germans’ dense testudo (‘tortoise’, a defensive shield formation) and tearing away the shields to hack at the enemy from above.

Such furor (‘fury’) was characteristic of Roman warriors from the earliest times. In 437 BC, in a cavalry skirmish outside the Latin town of Fidenae, the military tribune Cornelius Cossus encountered Lars Tolumnius, the king of Etruscan Veii. According to the later Roman historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (presumably drawing on the ballad tradition of the aristocratic Cornelii clan), Cossus unsaddled Tolumnius with his lance, then leapt from his horse and battered the king with the boss of his shield as he struggled to rise. Cossus speared the king through the torso and pinned him to the ground. With typical Roman overkill, he tore out the lance and stabbed the king repeatedly. Cossus quickly stripped the king of his armour, hacked off his head and fixed it to the point of his lance and remounted his horse. The Etruscan cavalry panicked and fled when the bloody warrior charged towards them with the severed head of their king.

The taking of heads is usually associated with the ‘barbarian’ enemies of Rome, especially the Gauls. According to Diodorus, who wrote in the first century BC, “when their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses. They carry them off as booty, singing a paean over them and striking up a song of victory. These first-fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just as men do, in certain kinds of hunting, with the heads of wild beasts.”

Some scholars have suggested that the Romans became head hunters during their protracted struggles with the Gauls, but Cossus decapitated Tolumnius almost 50 years before the Romans and Gauls first met in battle. Roman head-taking probably goes back to pre-history. The Romans maintained a tradition that Romulus, son of Mars and legendary founder of Rome, had defeated a rival Latin king in single combat and then beheaded him. Nor were the Romans the only Italian people that took heads. After the disastrous (for the Romans) battle of the Cremera, the Etruscans of Veii cut off and retained as trophies the heads of the most notable Roman casualties (477 BC). The Central Italian Aequi were known to taunt the Romans with the severed heads of legionary commanders.

Decapitation was often the final act in single combat, and duelling with an enemy champion was the ultimate way in which a Roman proclaimed his status as a warrior.

A fragment of the lost history of Claudius Quadrigarius tells how Titus Manlius, a legionary tribune, was challenged to single combat by a Gallic champion in 361 BC. The Gaul, a member of a mercenary war band probably in the employ of Rome’s Latin rivals, met Manlius on neutral ground, a bridge crossing the River Anio. In classic Roman fashion, Manlius did not bother with fancy swordplay, but battered the Gaul with his shield and threw him off-balance. As the Gaul stumbled back and dropped his guard, Manlius stabbed him in the chest and then in the shoulder, and finally decapitated him. This allowed easy access to the Gaul’s gold neck torque: “Manlius tore off his torque and put it, covered as it was with blood, around his own neck. Because of this act he himself and his descendants had the surname Torquatus.”

In 222 BC, Claudius Marcellus slew Viridomarus, king of the Gaesati, at the battle of Clastidium. According to one account of the battle, the Gaesati were superior in cavalry and Marcellus had to extend line to prevent his army being enveloped. He was contemplating how best to retreat when proud Viridomarus rode up and challenged him to single combat. Marcellus was a noted duellist and his renown had probably reached the ears of the North Italian Gauls. He immediately accepted the challenge and spurred his horse forward. Plutarch, the biographer of Marcellus, relates “he charged at the king, and by a thrust of his lance which pierced his adversary’s cuirass, and by the impact of his horse at the gallop, threw him, still living, upon the ground, where, with a second and a third blow, he promptly killed him.” Propertius, the famous Roman poet, adds that Marcellus cut off Viridomarus’ head.

What happened to heads taken in combat? Along with their arms and armour, the heads of kings like Lars Tolumnius and Viridomarus were probably dedicated to the god Jupiter as part of the spolia opima, the ‘greatest spoils’. Sometimes heads were presented to a commander to confirm an ordinary legionary’s number of kills (as occurred at the battle of the River Calor in 214 BC). Heads were occasionally used to adorn battlefield trophies (e.g. Munda, 45 BC). Like the Gauls, the Romans decorated their homes with trophies taken in battle, but there is no suggestion that impaled heads were to be found alongside the nailed-up shields, swords and helmets. However, the scalps of enemies might be used to decorate helmets.

At the battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC), the Roman consul Gaius Flaminius rode to his death wearing a helmet adorned with a long-haired scalp: he had taken it from the head of a Gallic chief he killed in single combat some years before. Like the heads taken by Gallic warriors and slung from their horses’ necks, or nailed to the doors of their homes, the scalp worn by Flaminius was a trophy that declared his prowess as an individual warrior. At the battle of Vercellae (101 BC), legionaries used scalping as a method to terrorise the bellicose womenfolk of the Cimbri into submission. The gruesome practice of taking scalps as trophies was still carried out in the second century AD. Research by Dr Guy Stiebel suggests that during the Bar Kokhba revolt (AD 132–135), legionaries covered their helmets with scalps taken from slaughtered Jewish rebels.

Head-taking continued into the Imperial period. In 2005, a spectacular Roman military tombstone was discovered in Lancaster. Dating to c. AD 100, it is decorated with a portrait of the cavalryman Insus. His stallion tramples a headless Briton; Insus brandishes the man’s severed head. It has been suggested that Insus, an auxiliary cavalryman of Gallic descent, followed the Gallic tradition of head-hunting, but a panel of the near-contemporary Great Trajanic Frieze, a triumphal monument in Rome celebrating the Dacian Wars of the Emperor Trajan (AD 101–2 and 105–6), shows praetorian guardsmen displaying trophy heads. The Column of Marcus Aurelius, which commemorates the Marcomannic Wars of AD 167–180, also depicts a praetorian holding up a head he has taken in battle. Praetorians were predominantly Italian and this suggests the old Roman practice of head-taking remained strong. The provincial legionaries (of Gallic and Germanic origin) who fought at Amida in AD 359 were motivated by a concept of virtus drummed into them by long service in the Roman army, and it is likely that Insus’ act of head-taking was strongly influenced by Roman military tradition.

Warriors of the First Rank

Describing the Roman army as a military machine is attractive but imposes an inappropriate modernity. The Roman army developed out of the war bands of the earliest Roman clans, and despite growing massively in size and sophistication over the centuries, it always retained a warrior ethos.

In 221 BC, the funeral eulogy of Lucius Caecilius Metellus proclaimed he had achieved the “ten greatest and highest objects” that mark out great men. These included having been a brave general and winning victories under his own auspices, but the most important object Metellus attained was having been a warrior (bellator) of the first rank.

The Roman army certainly punished acts of insubordination and indiscipline. Indeed some unfortunate soldiers were executed in order to bring others to heel, but the general preoccupation with proving one’s worth as a warrior (something that Romans of all ranks and classes could aspire to) explains why the antics of men like Titus Pullo or the campidoctores at Amida were not just tolerated, but praised and commemorated.

Originally published in Military History Monthly (Dec. 2012).

Ross Cowan is the author of For the Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare

Author of ten books and numerous articles about Roman warfare.