The tactics of the Roman legions had not yet acquired that perfection which they received from the military genius of Marius, and which we read of in the first chapter of Gibbon.
Continuing Battle of Metaurus,
our selection from The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo by Edward Creasy published in 1851. The selection is presented in eleven easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Battle of Metaurus.
Time: 207 BC
Place: Metaurus River, Italy
He [Hasdrubal -jl seems to have been especially deficient in cavalry, and he had few African troops, though some Carthaginians of high rank were with him. His veteran Spanish infantry, armed with helmets and shields, and short cut-and-thrust swords, were the best part of his army. These and his few Africans he drew up on his right wing, under his own personal command. In the centre he placed his Ligurian infantry, and on the left wing he placed or retained the Gauls, who were armed with long javelins and with huge broadswords and targets. The rugged nature of the ground in front and on the flank of this part of his line made him hope that the Roman right wing would be unable to come to close quarters with these unserviceable barbarians before he could make some impression with his Spanish veterans on the Roman left. This was the only chance that he had of victory or safety, and he seems to have done everything that good generalship could do to secure it. He placed his elephants in advance of his centre and right wing. He had caused the driver of each of them to be provided with a sharp iron spike and a mallet, and had given orders that every beast that became unmanageable, and ran back upon his own ranks, should be instantly killed by driving the spike into the vertebra at the junction of the head and the spine. Hasdrubal’s elephants were ten in number. We have no trustworthy information as to the amount of his infantry, but it is quite clear that he was greatly outnumbered by the combined Roman forces.
The tactics of the Roman legions had not yet acquired that perfection which they received from the military genius of Marius,* and which we read of in the first chapter of Gibbon. We possess, in that great work, an account of the Roman legions at the end of the commonwealth, and during the early ages of the empire, which those alone can adequately admire who have attempted a similar description. We have also, in the sixth and seventeenth books of Polybius, an elaborate discussion on the military system of the Romans in his time, which was not far distant from the time of the battle of the Metaurus. But the subject is beset with difficulties; and instead of entering into minute but inconclusive details, I would refer to Gibbon’s first chapter as serving for a general description of the Roman army in its period of perfection, and remark that the training and armor which the whole legion received in the time of Augustus were, two centuries earlier, only partially introduced. Two divisions of troops, called hastati and principes, formed the bulk of each Roman legion in the Second Punic War. Each of these divisions was twelve hundred strong. The hastatus and the princeps legionary bore a breastplate or coat of mail, brazen greaves, and a brazen helmet with a lofty upright crest of scarlet or black feathers. He had a large oblong shield; and, as weapons of offence, two javelins, one of which was light and slender, but the other was a strong and massive weapon, with a shaft about four feet long and an iron head of equal length. The sword was carried on the right thigh, and was a short cut-and-thrust weapon, like that which was used by the Spaniards. Thus armed, the hastati formed the front division of the legion, and the principes the second. Each division was drawn up about ten deep, a space of three feet being allowed between the files as well as the ranks, so as to give each legionary ample room for the use of his javelins and of his sword and shield. The men in the second rank did not stand immediately behind those in the first rank, but the files were alternate, like the position of the men on a draught-board. This was termed the quincunx order.
* Most probably during the period of his prolonged consulship, from B.C. 104 to B.C. 101, while he was training his army against the Cimbri and the Teutons.
Niebuhr considers that this arrangement enabled the legion to keep up a shower of javelins on the enemy for some considerable time. He says: “When the first line had hurled its pila, it probably stepped back between those who stood behind it, and two steps forward restored the front nearly to its first position; a movement which, on account of the arrangement of the quincunx, could be executed without losing a moment. Thus one line succeeded the other in the front till it was time to draw the swords; nay, when it was found expedient, the lines which had already been in the front might repeat this change, since the stores of pila were surely not confined to the two which each soldier took with him into battle.
The same charge must have taken place in fighting with the sword, which, when the same tactics were adopted on both sides, was anything but a confused mêlée; on the contrary, it was a series of single combats.” He adds that a military man of experience had been consulted by him on the subject and had given it as his opinion “that the change of the lines as described above was by no means impracticable; but, in the absence of the deafening noise of gunpowder, it cannot have had even any difficulty with well-trained troops.
The third division of the legion was six hundred strong and acted as a reserve. It was always composed of veteran soldiers, who were called the triarii. Their arms were the same as these of the principes and hastati, except that each triarian carried a spear instead of javelins. The rest of the legion consisted of light-armed troops, who acted as skirmishers. The cavalry of each legion was at this period about three hundred strong. The Italian allies who were attached to the legion seem to have been similarly armed and equipped, but their numerical proportion of cavalry was much larger.
Such was the nature of the forces that advanced on the Roman side to the battle of the Metaurus.
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