The history of the Rome is the history of its military. On the shoulders of its young men rested the power, prosperity and longevity of an empire. Wherever the legions went they brought force, domination, brutality as well as order, peace and culture that would encompass the western world.
The First Armies
During the beginning, the Roman army was based on the tactical design of the phalanx. Originally invented in the Greek city-states; then used to perfection by Alexander the Great and the Macedonians; it was the premier fighting style of the time.
The phalanx consisted of 10 to 12 men deep, armed with long spears, small shields and heavy armor. Men in the front line lowered their spears almost perpendicular to their chest and marched in unison straight at the enemy mass. Soldiers in the second row and further back raised their spears higher to deflect incoming missile fire, and if the front row fell, they would take their place.
In a head on fight, the phalanx seemed impenetrable. Nothing was able to overpower its long spears and tight formation of soldiers. It was like an invincible block and could destroy everything in its path by sheer weight.
The Republican Army
Soon enough however, the Romans found deficiencies in the phalanx formation. It was extremely slow, hard to maneuver and vulnerable in the sides and rear. After years of fighting, the Romans developed a more loose formation designed specifically to defeat the Celts and local hill people called the Sammites.
The long 18-foot spears where shortened to form a javelin called a pilum. Instead of thrusting, it was meant for throwing. A huge body sized wall shield replaced the small circular buckler and a short sword called a gladius became the melee weapon of choice.
Instead of lining up giant block shape, the legion was formed a checker board formation. The pilums where thrown first then the men charged with their swords. The javelins were meant (if not to kill) to hamper the enemy. They stuck to shields (so not to be taken out) and made their shields too cumbersome for the enemy to keep. Now the Romans charged head on, held their shields close to the enemy and stabbed with their short swords. This in many cases was what made the Romans so hard to beat. There was no defense against this tactic. The enemy usually used a longer sword that was too big for thrusting and there was not enough room for slashing. Their shields were either gone or too small to be effective at this point. Thus, the enemy was hapless in such close courters and victim to the oncoming gladius. In this unromantic, almost comical fashion, the Romans were able to cripple all their enemies.
Service and Discipline
From the very beginning, Rome was a city-state. Only citizens were expected to fight and defending the city was considered an honor. Men were conscripted as need and most were compensated for loss of income by the loot plundered in subsequent campaigns.
Discipline was very strict and one of the factors which gave the Romans an advantage over their enemies. Beatings and torture were common forms of punishment and soldiers were expected to follow their orders in battle to death (or be killed by their commanders later). As discipline began to waver so did the success of the army. In the late empire, the discipline of the army was hardly any better than their enemies.
Another thing that gave the Romans a large advantage was their extensive training. Recruits were taught to march hundreds of miles in a few days. They trained for battle using extra heavy weapons and simulated every action and tactic needed to know. This gave them another edge over enemies who were often ill trained.
Carthage & The Punic Wars
By 230 BCE, Rome and Carthage were the two largest powers in the Mediterranean. One was a great land power while the other master of the seas. These two inherently different states would be locked in a perpetual wrestling match until finally one would prevail.
Carthage was originally a city-state founded by Phoenicians. After it was cut off from its mother state in modern Israel, Carthage began to grow rapidly. By 215 BCE, Carthage controlled most of North Africa, Spain and many islands in the Mediterranean. They also controlled the vital trade routes of the ocean. This was due to the strength of their navy, which was second to none.
The first contact between the two powers was on friendly terms. They were mutual allies against the Greek city-states in Syracuse. Yet, by 264 BCE friction began to form as Roman and Carthaginian territory began to come in contact.
The first Punic War lasted from 264 until 241 and was fought entirely over the province of Sicily. Rome sent an army from Italy and conquered most of the Carthaginian cities. In the process Rome had to build a navy and use to break Cartage's power in the sea. Using a beached Carthaginian warship as a model, Rome built a navy from scratch. After many defeats (one Roman writer estimates as many as 100,000 casualties at sea) Rome finally destroyed the Carthaginian fleet. In the proceeding treaty, Carthage ceded Sicily and paid an indemnity. However, the Romans still felt threatened. In 238 BCE they sized another island Corsica. This caused the Carthaginians to send the Hamilcar family to Spain to raise an army.
When the young Carthaginian general of Spain, Hannibal refused to give up his command after conquering a rebellious Spanish city, Rome declared war.
Thus, began one of the most trying times in Roman history. The war lasted from 218-202 BCE. In that short time the Roman republic would face enormous disasters and remarkably bounce back from all of them. Hannibal deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest generals of all time. He first set for Rome from Spain, after he crossed the Alps most his soldiers died. Nevertheless, he compensated for this by recruiting many Celts into his army. In northern Italy he utterly crushed two superior Roman armies. Later in southern Italy, his outnumbered army annihilated a force of 80,000 Romans at the battle of Cannae. Although it was Rome's greatest military disaster, Hannibal did not follow up on it. He concluded that he did not have the necessary equipment or numbers to storm the city of Rome. In the meantime, the Romans still controlled the seas. They sent an army under Scipio to takeover Spain. Rome also sent more armies to Macedonia and other states that had allied with Carthage. When Scipio landed an army in North Africa, Hannibal had no choice except to rush back home and deal with the invasion. Once in Carthage, he hastily gathered an army and met Scipio near Zama. It was the first and only land battle that Hannibal lost.
In 202 BCE Carthage was reduced to nothing more than a Roman dependency and Hannibal had run away to Rome.
The third Punic War (149-146 BCE) was a war of absolute destruction. The Romans, still fearful of the Carthage economic power order the citizens to leave Carthage and never use its docks again. The Carthaginians of course refused. Scipio who would be known as Scipio Africanus (because he conquered Africa), besieged Carthage and after 3 years captured it. As the story goes, the people were massacred, the docks burned and soil sewn with salt so that nothing could grow.
After the second Punic War, Rome seemed invincible. Coming back from such horrific calamities, Rome affirmed its position as the world's Superpower. It would not relinquish the title for over 1000 years.