Features of Ancient Societies: Roman Weapons and Warfare

Features of Ancient Societies: Roman Weapons and Warfare

The development of weaponry and methods of warfare, including:

Ancient Rome excelled in the development of weapons and military tactics. Through their ingenuity, the size of the army (comprised of both citizens [legionnaires] and non-citizens [auxiliaries]) and the strength of the commanders, the empire stretched from England to Turkey and Germany to North Africa by the end of the first century AD. Their military might was further strengthened with the continual development of siege weapons, which the Romans adopted from their Hellenistic neighbours. From the start of Roman 'wars of expansion', beginning in the late third century BC, Rome was constantly at war.  Due to its importance in the development of the empire, the topic of warfare features heavily in ancient literary sources. What follows on this page is a range of primary and secondary sources relating to weapons and warfare in ancient Rome.

Roman army

Photo credit: Roman Army & Chariot Experience
Wikimedia Commons

The Nature of the Sources for Weapons and Warfare

There are a number of ancient writers who comment on military battles the Roman army engaged in. Perhaps the most famous of these accounts comes from Julius Caesar, who wrote a history of his Gallic wars and the infamous civil war. Roman warfare, tactics and battles feature heavily in the ancient literary sources. For an overview of these works and more specific details on the battles mentioned, see the Lacus Curtius site on Roman military history. For the surviving archaeological evidence on the different types of Roman weapons and armour see the list of resources below.

The Composition and Role of Armies and/or Navies

The Life of the Soldiers and the Significance of the Military within Society

To be part of the Roman army you had to fulfil two main requirements: (1) you had to be a male; and (2) at least 18 years old. Once you joined the army, you served for a minimum of 25 years before you are allowed to retire. When on campaign, you would march at least 36 kilometres in full army gear, which could weight upward of 20kgs. The majority of those in the army were from poorer families who joined the army for the guaranteed pay (about 225 denarii per annum for a legionnaire which equates to ~$930 today and 188 denarii per annum for an auxiliary which equates to ~$700 today), to lift the burden off their family and to have the prospect of rank advancement. For more on the lives and expectations of Roman soldiers, see the list of resources below.

Key Military Encounters through Roman History

There is a number of key important military encounters throughout Roman history. Below is a list of resources on some of these encounters, including the wars against Hannibal the Carthaginian, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the Civil Wars and the First Jewish-Roman War.

The Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC)
Caesar’s Gallic Wars (58 – 51/50 BC)
The Civil Wars (49 – 46 BC)
The First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 70 AD)

The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Warfare and Conquest

Military victories brought political prestige and a mass amount of wealth from the pillaged lands. Caesar was said to have shared his spoils from the Gallic wars with the plebeians at Rome. Military triumphs were one of the most sought-after celebration for military commanders. With new conquered lands, wealth poured into the ancient capital as major trading ports and farming lands were incorporated into the Roman empire. However, war and conquest contributed to an increasing destabilisation of the societal aspect of Rome as the divide between citizen and non-citizen became more apparent. Below is further information on the impact of war and conquest on Roman politics, economy and society.

  • Khan Academny, The Roman Republic. See especially the section on "Economic Development".
  • W. Scheidel, Slavery in the Roman Economy, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics (Stanford University, 2010). Abstract: "This paper discusses the location of slavery in the Roman economy. It deals with the size and distribution of the slave population and the economics of slave labor and offers a chronological sketch of the development of Roman slavery."
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