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A Guide to Roman Battle Formations - Ideal for Primary Schools

The Roman Army was really good at fighting. I guess that’s pretty obvious, right? It’s not like you can get a massive Empire by losing every battle and running away screaming, is it? And The Romans, back in the day, sure did have a big Empire, stretching from Britain all the way to the top of Africa and covering most of the lands in between.

Why then, was the Roman Army so gosh darn effective? Well, as luck would have it, we’ve looked at some of the reasons in previous posts. We’ve explored their technologically advanced artillery, their fancy weapons and armour, and their impressive levels of organisation. For this post though, we are going to check out the Roman Legions’ battle formations.

In Ancient History, military tactics were lacking. Many ancient armies had the following strategy:

  • Get everyone in your war band together over a period of days and weeks, people would have to travel from all over the region to join up with the army.

  • Have a few professional soldiers but mostly pack out your force with enthusiastic amateurs.

  • The professional soldiers would be kitted out with decent weapons and armour but the enthusiastic amateurs would bring whatever they had close to hand; pitch forks, grandad’s spear, a particularly nasty-looking pig – you get the idea.

  • Bring your ragtag force to the site of the battle and get everyone drunk on lots of weak beer.

  • Send your drunken warriors charging towards the enemy and hope for the best. Fingers crossed after all that booze they run in the right direction.

Roman Legions were different. Every single soldier was paid to be there, was trained for war, and was equipped with the best money and armour denarius could buy. They also had tactics, they had a plan, and so when they were in battle, and everything started to get a bit kerazzy, every Roman Legionnaire knew exactly what they should be doing.

These tactics took the form of different battle formations, each formation was devised to achieve certain goals – usually either staying alive or killing lots of the enemy - in the most effective way possible.

Let’s take a look at them now:

Command – “Repellere equites” - Square Formation

A stunning recreation of the 'square' formation from Mozaik Eduction.

If the Romans were up against cavalry, they would manoeuvre into a square-shaped formation. Each line of the square would consist of legionnaires protecting themselves from outward attack with their shields – scutum – and brandishing their javelins – pila – as spears. That way, no matter which side those pesky horse-riding warriors attacked from, they would be met with a wall of sharp spearheads. Even better, as each legionnaire was equipped with three pila, the soldiers in the secondary lines could even lob some of them at the horses as they cantered to and fro.

Command – “Orbem formate” - Circle Formation

Historical Re-enactment of a teeny-tiny Circle Formation

If the Romans were surrounded by a larger force of enemy warriors, they would assemble into a circular formation. In this position, they could defend themselves from any angle. No matter where the enemy was, they would be met with a sword – gladius – to the face, leg, or – worst of all – groin. The highlight of the formation is that in the centre of the circle, you have all of your bow and arrow-wielding auxiliary, who can rain down arrows upon the unfortunate and likely unprotected bonces of the enemy warriors.

Command – “Testudinem formate” - Tortoise Formation

Historical re-enactment of the Testudo.

This is likely the most famous of all the formations. The testudo is where the legion gathers together in a rectangular shape. The legionnaires on the front, back and sides hold their shields to protect each flank. Whilst the legionnaires in the other lines hold their shields aloft above their heads. The Romans would have created an armoured shell with their shields, like a tortoise. Well, a giant tortoise with hundreds of hairy feet. That’s a terrifying mental image. The testudo was ideal for sieges, allowing the Romans to get really close to an enemy fort and then bash its gate down with a battering ram. All whilst their shields protected them from arrows, boulders, and anything else the fort’s defenders could find to fling at them.

Command – “Cuneum formate” - Wedge Formation

A Roman Wege Formation as seen in the Total War video game.

Upon hearing this command, the Romans would have arranged themselves into a wedge formation. Wedge is a fun word for what is basically a distorted triangle. This is a formation intended to attack, to charge, at the enemy and take the fight to them. The tip of the wedge, the point at the front, is where all your most experienced soldiers stand. The idea is that the sharp shape of the wedge enables you to pierce the ranks of your enemy. The legionnaires would keep on running, cutting and slashing at anyone who stood in their way, until they were deep into the enemy army. The speed and ferocity of the attack, of finding a Roman Legionnaire right next to you and trying to stab you with something sharp, usually caused the enemy army to route – to run away in panic, fear, and much pooping.


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