Ep. 26 Underrated Overrated: The Roman Legion and the Will to Win

Part 2 of a series on historical events that are widely overrated in aspects of their impact and yet actually underrated and deeply misunderstood. The Roman civilization is famous all over the world, but few people know just how unlikely and unique their rise to power was. Through an uncommon combination of ruthlessness and humility, Rome built a culture and a war machine that learned from mistakes, adapted to circumstances, and relentlessly pursued total victory. 

Check out this episode!

Show Notes

  • Roman rise included overthrowing kings, becoming a republic, elected consuls and even a Senate.
  • One of the incredible things about Romans was their ability to absorb defeat and learn from it.
  • They maintained a culture-wide focus on how to win.
  • They began their rise to power in Italy in the 400s and 300s BC.
  • Battle of Allia
  • The Celtic sack refines Roman warfare.
  • Ancient warfare used the Phalanx military formation and the goal was not to utterly annihilate opponents, just to get them to do what you wanted.
  • For more details on the original Phalanx warfare, check out my This is Sparta! episode
  • While the Phalanx was the custom in warfare, it was vulnerable from the sides and rear.
  • Alexander the Great and Philip the Second improved upon the Phalanx by making the spears longer and the formation deeper, as well as adding companion cavalry.
  • Samnites were a rival Italian group, from a hilly rocky land that made it hard keep the Phalanx together
  • Battle of the Caudine Forks 321 BC, a big defeat that figured deeply into the Roman sense of self.
  • “Under the Yolk”
  • Romans innovated warfare, creating Triplex Acies, three lines of soldiers: the Hastati, Principes, and Triarii
  • Romans got rid of the Phalanx pikes and invented the Gladius (short heavy sword) and pila (javelins)
  • This all eventually came to be called the Manipular Legion.

For Further Awesome Reading…

Complete Roman Army

In The Complete Roman Army, Goldsworthy writes an accessible and detailed account of the evolution of Roman arms, with plenty of visuals to help the general audience understand how things looked. In Roman Warfare, the Roman ethos over the development of their civilization is also effectively captured.

Roman Warfare

Livy: The Early History of Rome

Polybius: The Histories

Both Polybius and Livy were historians under the Roman thumb, who were expected to write accounts that reflected well on Roman development. Their bias has to be taken into account, but they remain invaluable sources for the rise of Rome. Polybius in particular had a great influence on the subject of history and the idea that it should be a rational discussion of causes and effects. I can remember my first time reading him, while on a plane in 2002—excellent history, even translated and read out of context over 2000 years later!

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