Imperial Roman Army – Training


“Put an equally brave, but untrained soldier in the front line, and he will look like a woman.” -Cicero

This gives a very good impression how the Romans thought about training.

Training served many purposes like,

  • ensuring combat readiness, discipline and unit cohesion
  • serving as a political tool in foreign and domestic affairs
  • improving and maintaining the infrastructure of the Empire

Basic Training

To become a fully enlisted soldier in the Army, every recruit had to pass basic training.
Basic training was performed daily for at least 4 months. (Davies: p. 14) It ensured that the recruit was fit for duty in the Roman Army, thus each recruit had to pass several proficiency tests. Recruits failing those tests would receive a different diet and notes in their records.

Training Content

Whereas basic training was probably more intensive and fundamental, the regular training was similar. It covered individual and collective aspects as well as combat and non-combat training.

Individual training:

  • weapons training, including close combat and ranged weapons
  • physical exercise like swimming, running and jumping

Collective training:

  • improving coordination like keeping the ranks close and parading
  • construction training like digging ditches and planting palisades
  • mock fights where one party tries to dislodge another party defending with shields

3 times a month infantry and cavalry together went on a route march (amubulation) with full equipment of about twenty miles. This march was not just going from one destination to another, it was basically a small military exercise that covered various maneuvers for the cavalry, crossing different terrain and after reaching the destination, a camp with ditches and ramparts was constructed.

Furthermore, large scale military exercise with other forces were conducted periodically and regular inspections served as quality control. We know from Emperor Hadrian that he visited and inspected large scale exercises. Giving reports on the performance of units, including praise and criticism. But Hadrian put a strong emphasis on training and discipline, thus he was probably an exception rather than the rule.

Training Infrastructure

To ensure the proper training, facilities and specialist are needed. There were different training grounds for the infantry and cavalry. Usually training was done outside, but in case of very poor weather special training buildings were available to perform the activities indoors.

Additionally, there were special areas for training aspects like camp-building, fort-building, siege-works, artillery practice and bridge-building.

Furthermore, there were several specialist for drill instructions, weapons and cavalry training.

  • Campidoctor : Drillinstructor
  • Doctor armorum or armatura: weapons instructor
  • Doctor cohortis: drillinstructor battalion (cohort)
  • Exercitatores & magister campi: cavalry instructors

Benefits of Training

Discipline & readiness

The constant exercises and marches helped in maintaining combat readiness, physical fitness and unit cohesion.
Or as Veranius put it: “Trained by sweating, puffing and panting, exposed to summer heat and bitter cold under an open sky, the soldiers become accustomed to the future hardships of real fighting.” (Davies:p. 137) (Q. Veranius)

Building Infrastructure

Additionally, soldiers were often used to build roads and other important buildings. Bohec states that the soldiers could build markets and whole cities. The construction of towers, forts and defense lines was performed by the infantry whereas the cavalry guarded them.
The construction and engineering aspects was an aspect of Imperial Roman doctrine. The fast construction of bridges and other structures should remind barbarians of their inferiority, thus deterring them from attacking.

Conclusion / Outro

“Exercises that do not involve the perils of a real battle, are a sufficient relaxation to soldiers, however weary they may be.” (Davies:p. 137) (Q. Veranius)
Training in the Imperial Roman Army was a crucial and complex process that didn’t just focus on the ability of the soldiers to fight in battle, but to succeed in enduring campaigns and thus maintaining the capabilities of the Empire to wage and win wars.

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Online Resources

The Military Institutions of the Romans (De Re Militari) By Flavius Vegetius Renatus-Translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke