How Rome conquered with a small knife
Part One-The Barbarians
Few things are as cool as the Roman Empire. I mean you just can’t beat it and if you don’t like it, I think it’s because you simply do not know enough about it. I promise you. What gets me is, how did the Romans do it? I mean how did this little farming village, located on some stretch of swampy, malaria-infested backwater rise into an empire that spanned from the British Isles to Baghdad?
Well, the answer is multifaceted, and I certainly can’t answer it, but one thing I can tell you is they had a top-notch military. Sure, sure, they owe much of their success to adopting the technology of their conquered foes, brutal suppression of non-Romans (as well as more than a few Romans) and more than their share of amazingly good luck. No doubt about it. But you probably won’t be surprised to hear me say that I think it was Rome’s armies that carried it into the history books. And I think the greatest reason Rome’s military was so successful was its mindset. The way it approached problems. The Greeks were passionate and artistic, the empires of the East relied on obedience, but the Romans? They were just practical to the core. They figured out what made humans tick and then turned around and used it against them.
The Neighbors to the North
Give or take some Carthaginians, perhaps Rome’s greatest adversary were the various tribes to their north in Europe. They sacked Rome in the early days of 370 BC and it was those same folks who presided over Rome’s fall almost 1,000 years later. These people were everything the Romans were not. Where to Romans loved their civic life and were governed by a Senate, their neighbors to the north were nomadic, tribal and never untied under a single ruler. The Romans were farmers and wherever they settled towns sprang up united by a web trade networks using minted money. Their northern neighbors were herders and had an economy based on barter. Romans were proud of their culture of virtue and sensibility, they wore bleached togas, the women had elaborate hairstyles while the men shaved. Every Roman bathed daily. By comparison their neighbors to the north dressed in animal skins or pants and had long beards, red hair and tattoos. To the sensible Romans they seemed uncouth, barbaric and downright terrifying.
But who were these people?
They came by many names; the Gauls occupied an area covering what is today Belgium, Luxembourg and France. But there were many other tribes such as the Celts, who at one time covered nearly all of non-Roman Europe. The Helvetii were another tribe found in modern Switzerland (today Switzerland is still referred to by its Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica). There were also Thracians and Dacians to the east around Bulgaria. Spartacus was a Thracian. He was that slave who led and uprising that came pretty close to toppling Rome itself around 70 BC. That gives you an idea what type of cloth those folks were cut from. There were also the Cimbri and the Teutons who living along the Rhine and in parts of the present day Czech Republic and Slovakia.Whatever these people called themselves, they were ” the Germans” to the Romans. And no one ever caused the Romans more trouble than the Germanic tribes.
The problem was that Europe just wasn’t big enough for the Romans and these northern people to live together in peace and harmony, even if they had wanted to. The Romans were a growing people and their northern neighbors were hungry. Every year new Roman farms and town popped up on the northern side of the Alps and the northern tribes would treat these settlements like a sort of ancient ATM; leaving their deep dark forests every few years to pillage Roman farms and towns only to retreat and repeat the a year or two later when the towns had been rebuilt. Conflict was inevitable.
And nturally, Rome was almost always at war with them. Gaius Marius, one of history’s baddest of asses, fought the them in the Cimbrian War (113 BC) and the his nephew, a guy called Julius Caesar made a name for himself smiting their hordes during his Gallic War (58 BC). Many years later Marcus Arelius, with the help of Russell Crowe, fought them again in the Marcomannic War (160 AD). By then, Rome had already been fighting some form of the Germans for nearly 400 years.
But things certainly did not always go the Romans’ way. In AD 4, over three cold and rainy days, three entire Roman Legions were wiped out and their Legionary Eagles lost at a place called Teuteborg. An overwhelming loss and a humiliation unknown since the days of Hannibal. Many years later, a Roman detachment was sent to the site. The Legionaries who weren’t carted off into slavery had been nailed to the trees, ritually sacrificed or cooked alive in large pots. The Barbarians left their bones arranged in grotesque displays.
If the Romans organized themselves according to strict laws and dignitas, Germanic culture was tribal and its political structure relied heavily on war. Not to say that these people were more or less warlike, the Romans fought more wars than anyone. Its just that where the Romans had devised an elaborate government, the Germanic tribes were ruled by warrior chiefs whose status was more the result of their fighting abilities rather than administrative skills.
In Rome, there was a clear path to power that almost always began with military service. The army was organized down to the man, the smallest unit was the contubernium, 8 men who shared a tent. Eight contubernium made up a Century of 80 soldiers that was lead by a Centurion. Six centuries made a cohort of 480 men led by the senior centurion. Ten cohorts would make a legion of about 6,000 that was led by a legate. There were also established cavalry wings, engineers and specialized jobs such as metal smith or paymaster. Rome also had a corporate ladder, the cursus honorum. This was a system by which a young Roman could start his politcal career as a military tribune work his way up through the political system from quaestor, aedile to one day be consul.
But Germanic society was nothing like this. Without a centralalzed political organization or even urban centers, there really was no corporate ladder, no Senate, no elections, no government. The system was open to interpretation; king or chief could be the son of the last chief, or he could be they guy who killed the previous chief. In fact, the only way to really move up the chain of command in Barbarian society was by producing results in war, and by ‘producing results’, I mean winning. Quite simply, the baddest guy got to be king until someone else badder came along. This system had its merits, the most wildly brave and reckless skullcracker got the best parking spot in the company lot. This is not to say that the Germanic, Celtic and Gallic tribes were not advanced. They had a rich culture and excellent skills in particular areas such a metalworking. But their system made organizing society difficult and mustering, maintaining and controlling an army for any extended period of time nearly impossible.
This lead to the Germanic tribes relying less on technology and tactics and more on brute strength to win battles. Ancient Roman writer Dionysus of Helicanarssus wrote about the Celts
“their manner of fighting, being in large measure that of wild beasts and frenzied, was an erratic procedure, quite lacking in military science. Thus, at one moment they would raise their swords aloft and smite after the manner of wild boars, throwing the whole weight of their bodies into the blow like hewers of wood or men digging with mattocks, and again they would deliver crosswise blows aimed at no target, as if they intended to cut to pieces the entire bodies of their adversaries, protective armour and all”.
But it was a system that seemed to work well; by comparison, the Germans were much taller and stronger than their Roman counterparts and far more eager for an opportunity to distinguish themsleevs invattle, so they went with that. Their approach to battle made sense; throw everything into an all-out charge to break an enemy’s line. A battle plan usually went this way; get drunk, find Romans, yell and scream until you are worked up into a frenzy, charge and hack enemy to bits.
This was entirely at odds with the Roman way of waging war where soldiers were organized into units acting in concert and sent into battle in neat order.