The legionary's personal weapons and armour, and the bigger weapons available for siege operations.

Case study of a master general's tactics: Julius Caesar and the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC.


The deployment of the Roman infantry in battle depended on its mobility. Apart from his hob-nailed heavy sandals, a legionary’s legs were bare except in colder climates, where tight-fitting knee-breeches were the order of the day. The most usual form of helmet was bronze, with a skull-cap inside and projections to protect the back of the neck and the ears and cheeks. A legionary carried on his left arm the cylindrical leather shield. It was also useful as a siege weapon; a body of men crouched underneath their locked-together shields could approach a wall undeterred by missiles from above.

Testudo (tortoise)

From Trajan’s column (cast), men attack a wall under their shields; the formation was known as the “tortoise”. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

On the march a man carried two javelins of different weights, each 2 metres long and with a metal head. One of these went into battle with him; he hurled it at the enemy when in range, before getting down to the serious business of fighting hand to hand with his short, double-edged, thrusting and stabbing sword.

Artillery; click to enlarge

A selection of artillery and siege weapons. The largest and most effective was known as the onager (wild ass) because of its kick. Each century was allocated a mechanical arrow-shooter which was deployed in battle. (Illustrations by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

A Roman general’s objective was to break up and, if possible, break through the enemy lines. Cavalry was mainly employed to head off attacks by the opposition’s cavalry and to pursue stragglers. Julius Caesar’s favoured tactic was to draw up his cohorts in three lines, each some eight men deep. His first victory in Gaul, at Bibracte in 58 BC, was achieved without cavalry and by a manoeuvre which could only have succeeded when performed by highly trained and disciplined troops.

Battle of Bibracte

The battle of Bibracte 58 BC. (From Antony Kamm, The Romans: an introduction, Routledge 1995)

The Battle of Bibracte 58 BC. Caesar drew up his four legions in three lines (R). The Helvetii, in close-packed columns, advanced and attacked (H), but were thrown into confusion by the Roman javelins. Then Caesar advanced. The Helvetii retired to a hill to the north (H2). Caesar wheeled to face them, but was attacked in the rear by a force of Boii and Tulingi, who had then arrived on the scene (B, T). The first two Roman lines remained facing the Helvetii (R2), who returned to the attack (H3). The third Roman line faced about (R3). Both enemy forces were defeated and the Helvetii fled.

Believe it or not:

A successful general requires confidence (in himself and his men) and luck, as well as skill and the ability to make decisions instantaneously. Julius Caesar succeeded against Roman armies as well as against barbarians. His closest call, however, came in 45 BC at Munda, against Pompey’s son Gnaeus, who had 11 legions, 12,000 auxiliary infantry, and several squadrons of cavalry, to Caesar’s eight legions and 8000 cavalry. At the height of the battle, the unthinkable happened, and Caesar’s veteran legions began to give way, until a gap appeared between the two opposing armies. Caesar jumped from his horse, threw off his helmet so that he would be recognized, grabbed a shield, and rallied his troops from in front of the line.