History – The Romans – The Training of a Roman Soldier

The period with which we’re going to deal is that of the Empire, which came about in 27 B.C.E. Prior to that, during the Republic, every man between the ages of 17 and 45 was expected to serve in the army for the defense of Rome, when necessary. He had to supply himself with all his own weapons and armour, but with the coming of the Empire, all this ceased.

The Roman soldier became a salaried professional, and the training of a Roman soldier became a very serious business.

The historian, Peter Heather tells us that; “The training was like the Marines, only much nastier!”

A Roman legion was divided into 10 cohorts, (battalions), 30 maniples, (companies), and 60 centuries, (platoons). A legion was between 5000-6000 men.

Before they even touched a weapon, trainees first had to learn to march. Perhaps more accurately, to keep formation. Ranks with the discipline to keep formation were seldom defeated, so the thinking went, and if we study their battles, the thinking was absolutely correct.

Next came practice in running, leaping ditches and climbing over difficult objects. Swimming, too, was an essential part of their training. Not only them, but the cavalry, horses and even servants had to learn as well.

Then came sword practice with wooden swords, which were twice the weight of the real ones. We saw the Normans doing exactly the same thing. Not only does this strengthen the arm, but it makes you a great deal faster with the real weapon in battle. Practice with the shield came next.

After that, the use of them both together. They had to learn to keep themselves completely covered with their shields, and to stab with their swords, not slash. Slashing would seldom kill anyone and in the excitement of battle, when you were in mid-slash, you would most likely leave your flank exposed.

Next came the bow, sling and javelin. Again, the practice javelins were twice the weight of the real ones. In full battle order, a soldier would carry about five javelins in the hollow of his shield.

In fact, as far as the bow was concerned, only about one third to one quarter of the youngest and fittest were trained with this weapon.

All soldiers were trained in vaulting over wooden horses. First, they’d train without armour and then practice while wearing it. Once the soldier had been taught to march in formation, the next stage was route marches, fully armoured and armed.

The armour and accouterments would weigh in the region of 40 lbs, while he’d have to carry about another 35 lbs. of gear. Flavius Josephus, writing in the 1st. century, C.E., tells us..

“They carry a saw, a basket, a pick and an axe, as well as a leather strap, a sickle, a chain, and enough rations for three days.”

As well as this was his cloak and blanket.

The method of carrying these was on a ‘T’ pole, a wooden pole about 4 feet long, with a shorter piece fixed securely and at right angles to one end. On this would be tied or hung everything that the legionary required.