3 Important Roman Military Tactics | History Hit

3 Important Roman Military Tactics

Colin Ricketts

24 Jul 2018
Roman shields in defence formation.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Roman military tactics are still studied at military schools and staff colleges like Sandhurst to this day.

Organised military tactics and strategies certainly predated the Romans. The ancient Greeks of Macedonia arranged themselves in a rectangular phalanx to fight, (the Romans borrowed this as they borrowed any innovation that would benefit them) with concentrations of elite fighters and sub-units with their own officers.

The Romans though took this organisation to new heights. Key to their success was the standardisation of equipment and training, which included a short list of terse commands that every soldier understood completely.

Gaius Marius’s Marian Reforms of 107 BC changed the army from an armed upper class into a professional body through which every Roman could aspire to social advancement and even riches.


Bust of Gaius Marius whose military reforms contributed to the remarkable success of the Roman armies.

The Roman legionary’s loyalty to and trust of military structures was enormous. Loyal men follow orders.

Rome’s military was supremely adaptable, quickly changing to the challenge in front of it, but here are three tactics that stood the test of time.

1. The testudo

It’s easy to see where the “tortoise” formation got its name. Their uniquely large scuta, as the Romans’ shields were called, allowed them to present a 360-degree wall of wood to opponents.

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The front rank of the formation would kneel behind their interlocked shields, over a metre in height. The second rank would hold their shields above the heads of the men in front, and so on.

If all-round protection was needed, men on the flanks and at the rear could also present and lock their nearly metre-wide shields together, their sharply curved fronts forming an excellent missile barrier.

Some descriptions of the testudo discriminate between “heavily-armed” infantry with curved scuta and lighter troops with flat shields, who provide the roof to the tortoise.

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While it was possible to march a testudo about, it would travel at an appropriately tortoise-like speed, and the formation was usually used in response to distant missile fire. It was deployed in sieges to allow troops and engineers protected access to the walls they sought to destroy before more permanent defensive structures could be built.

marc anthony

General Marc Anthony who defeated the Parthians with the help of the testudo formation.

Marc Antony (of subsequent Shakespearean fame) reportedly used the tactic against the Parthians, who had some success against the testudo with mounted archers, in 36 BC.

2. The triple line

One innovation on the Greek phalanx that the Romans introduced was a triple line formation of three distinct ranks.

Military seniority was the key to where a legionary stood in the battle order.

Surprisingly, the least-seasoned men, hastati, made up the front rank. Behind them were the principes and, finally, the triarii, veterans of combat. In front of the whole lot stood the unfortunate velites, the newest (and usually poorest) recruits, who would launch javelins at approaching enemies before melting back behind the triarii.

Line formation

Re-enactors demonstrating a line formation.

The final rank, which could be some distance back, was the line beyond which the Roman legionary would not retreat. “Falling on the Triarii” passed into common usage, meaning facing a last ditch struggle.

The three lines would often line up – a Legion’s battle formation could be upwards of a mile – with alternating gaps, presenting a wider but still apparently unbroken fighting front. These gaps gave the already flexible legion even more room for manoeuvre and allowed the rear ranks to step up into a threatened line.

3. The wedge

The Roman army was the ancient world’s master of formation movement, with a menu of pre-drilled movements at the general’s fingertips. On the cry, “cuneum formate”, the legionaries would form a wedge and charge at the opposition.

roman wedge

Re-enactors demonstrating a wedge formation.

It’s a matter of simple physics. A sharp point drives deep into the body of enemy soldiers, while a thickening mass behind expands to further divide their forces. Just as a wooden wedge can split a log, a human one can smash an opposition force.

The “point” of the wedge would be made of deep lines of the best troops, allowing for concentration of killing power against a weaker enemy. This mismatch of blades or missiles allows the wedge in to force a gap that can be widened by the rest of the formation against an enemy that is being compressed into a smaller space.

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The wedge was used often. At the Battle of Pydna in 168 AD, wedge attacks helped to end the empire Alexander the Great of Macedon had founded. In the Battle of Wattling Street, after halting a British charge with spear volleys, a vastly outnumbered Roman force advanced in wedge formations to a stop Boudicca’s great revolt in 60 or 61 AD.

Colin Ricketts