Josephus: Description on the Roman Army

In the following selection Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37-95) describes the superiority of the Roman military machine.

. . . one cannot but admire the forethought shown in this particular by the Romans, in making their servant class useful to them not only for the ministrations of ordinary life but also for war. If one goes on to study the organization of their army as a whole, it will be seen that this vast empire of theirs has come to them as the prize of valor, and not as a gift of fortune.

For their nation does not wait for the outbreak of war to give men their first lesson on arms; they do not sit with folded hands in peace time only to put them in motion in the hour of need. On the contrary, as though they had been born with weapons in hand, they never have a truce from training, never wait for emergencies to arise. Moreover, their peace maneuvers are no less strenuous than veritable warfare; each soldier daily throws all his energy into his drill, as though he were in action. Hence that perfect ease with which they sustain the shock of battle: no confusion breaks their customary formation, no panic paralyzes, no fatigue exhausts them; and as their opponents cannot match these qualities, victory is the invariable and certain consequence. Indeed, it would not be wrong to describe their maneuvers as bloodless combats and combats as sanguinary maneuvers.

The Romans never lay themselves open to a surprise attack; for, whatever hostile territory they may invade, they engage in no battle until they have fortified their camp. This camp is not erected at random or unevenly; they do not all work at once or in disorderly parties; if the ground is uneven, it is first leveled; a site for the camp is then measured out in the form of a square. For this purpose the army is accompanied by a multitude of workmen and of tools for building.

The interior of the camp is divided into rows of tents. The exterior circuit presents the appearance of a wall and is furnished with towers at regular intervals; and on the spaces between the towers are placed "quick-firers," catapults, "stone-throwers," and every variety of artillery engines, all ready for use. In this surrounding wall are set four gates, one on each side, spacious enough for beasts of burden to enter without difficulty and wide enough for sallies of troops in emergencies. The camp is intersected by streets symmetrically laid out; in the middle are the tents of the officers, and precisely in the center the headquarters of the commander-in-chief, resembling a small temple. Thus, as it were, an improvised city springs up, with its market-place, its artisan quarter, its seats of judgment, where captains and colonels adjudicate upon any differences which may arise....

Once entrenched, the soldiers take up their quarters in their tents by companies, quietly and in good order. A11 their fatigue duties are performed with the same discipline, the same regard for security; the procuring of wood, food-supplies, and water, as required–each party has its allotted task.... The same precision is maintained on the battle-field: the troops wheel smartly round in the requisite direction, and, whether advancing to the attack or retreating, all move as a unit at the word of command.

When the camp is to be broken up, the trumpet sounds a first call; at that none remain idle: instantly, at this signal, they strike the tents and make all ready for departure. The trumpets sound a second call to prepare for the march: at once they pile their baggage on the mules and other beasts of burden and stand ready to start, like runners breasting the cord on the race-course. They then set fire to the encampment, both because they can easily construct another [on the spot], and to prevent the enemy from ever making use of it....

Then they advance, all marching in silence and in good order, each man keeping his place in the ranks, as if in face of the enemy.... By their military exercises the Romans instill into their soldiers fortitude not only of body but also of soul; fear, too, plays its part in their training. For they have laws which punish with death not merely desertion of the ranks, but even a slight neglect of duty; and their generals are held in even greater awe than the laws. For the high honors with which they reward the brave prevent the offenders whom they punish from regarding themselves as treated cruelly.

This perfect discipline makes the army an ornament of peace-time and in war welds the whole into a single body; so compact are their ranks, so alert their movements in wheeling to right or left, so quick their ears for orders, their eyes for signals, their hands to act upon them. Prompt as they consequently ever are in action, none are slower than they in succumbing to suffering, and never have they been known in any predicament to be beaten by numbers, by ruse, by difficulties of ground, or even by fortune; for they have more assurance of victory than of fortune. Where counsel thus precedes active operations, where the leaders' plan of campaign is followed up by so efficient an army, no wonder that the Empire has extended its boundaries on the east to the Euphrates, on the west to the ocean, on the south to the most fertile tracts of Libya, on the north to the Ister and the Rhine. One might say without exaggeration that, great as are their possessions, the people that won them are greater still....