Historical Roman Legions Part I: Pre-Marius Legions

By The Crazy Person

The History:

Under the rule of the Etruscan kings, the tribes of Italia fought battles in the traditional Greek Phalanx. The Phalanx was a strong but inflexible unit of men who would stand side by side with shields locked and pikes pointed forward to create a wall of men and iron that could not easily be broken. In Greece, this method of warfare seemed practical as battlefields were often chosen ahead of time and the phalanx would be used on a large flat plain. However, the difficult terrain of the area made the phalanx impractical, thus the tribes of Italia adapted new formations. The first change in the Roman military came when the census was conducted and the citizens were placed into classes. These classes would also reflect a soldier position on the battlefield. These classes would become Hastati, Principes, Triarii, Rorarii, and Accensi. The Hastati would form the forward lines, with Principes behind and Triarii spearmen, Rorarii and Accensi in reserve.

This was the legion of 4th century Rome. Let skip ahead a bit to the time frame of Rome: Total War. In the game, we are dealing with a 2nd century Roman legion which is the legion of Scipio Africanus who reformed the arrangement of the legion during the Punic Wars. In the second century, the Rorarii and Accensi have been done away with, having become Velites. All History aside, let setup our army.

Setting up your legion:

Your traditional 2nd century legion (in RTW, at least) will consist of 12 units: 1 Velite, 3 Hastati, 4 Principes and 4 Triarii (historically speaking, after converting unit sizes to the game, it would be 4 Hastati, but according to historical sources, the Velites were not a separate unit but attached to the Hastati that made up of each maniple, so I e compensated by making the 4th Hastati unit a Velite). On its own, without cavalry, archers or artillery support of any kind, this unit should, under most circumstances, be able to hold its own on the battlefield. Now for your battle line:

You l see that you have the Velites unit at the very front of the legion. The velites are skirmisher units and should be used for their intended purpose. Velites should be set a good ways ahead of the Hastati, but not so far ahead that they cannot fall back to cover fast enough. They should be set no more than 2 ranks deep so that when they fire, they will have maximum coverage of the enemy front. Behind the Velites is the Hastati line, which should be set so that the three units of Hastati are stretched the same length of Velite line. Behind the Hastati are the 4 Principes, who should also be the same length of the other lines. Behind the Principes are the 4 units of Triarii.

Extra units:

This setup allows for 8 auxiliary support units. I, personally, fill the gaps with 4 Equites, 2 Roman archers and 2 Onagers, but the choice is yours as auxiliary units were not exactly defined as part of the legion. However, when explaining the sequence of battle, I will only include the use of the 12 legionary units.

Fighting with the legion:

When engaging in battle, I e found it best to hold position and wait for the enemy to march on you. Why waste the strength of your army if you don have to? Once the enemy army is in range, your velites should automatically start throwing javelins. I sometimes recommend marching Velites slightly further ahead of the line so that they may engage the enemy sooner. If the enemy does not charge you, exhaust their ammo or fire until they do charge you. I do not recommend having your velites go into a melee because they can be decent support troops later on. Order your Hastati to then charge the enemy as well. If time allows, let the Hastati throw their pila, it always a helpful extra. If the Hastati do rout, and against a more formidable enemy, they may, the Principes stand as their replacements. As the Hastati run, march your Principes in the finish the job. Since they are heavy infantry, they will hold their own better against the enemy. Remember not to hesitate when charging your Principes in. The added bonus of a charge, large or small, can always turn the tide in a battle. Once your Principes are hard at work, the enemy forces should start to break and run. Remember, Triarii are reserves only and should be treated as such. In the case that your Principes can hold the line, that when you charge in your Triarii. They are what I would consider a ast stand unit and should be used when the rest of the legion has proven ineffective.


Even though the above states how to use a legion using only the base infantry, you l most likely always have Equites attached to the unit. If you do, and I strongly suggest that you do, the Equites should be used in the following roles: Protecting the flanks, charging the enemy from behind and cutting down routing troops. They are practically useless in head on combat, therefore they should not be placed in a position where they will be thrown away.

Formation variations:

The Roman legion was designed to be flexible, and indeed it is. The AI has a tendency to stretch its forces in a single long line without any real formation to it. Thus when it attacks, the flanks of that line close in like a circle. To counter this, I e found that stretching the legion width always works. To do this, guide your setup by your Principes. Have all Principe units to 4 ranks deep. This will define the width of the legion and you can set up your other units accordingly.

Also remember that I recommend 4 Equites (or 3 equites + a general), 2 archers and 2 onagers. To implement these units in your legion I suggest the following. Place your onagers at the very rear of the legion. I understand people fear hitting their own men because of the high inaccuracy of the onager, but it is a long range unit and should be used for just that. If the enemy closes in on you, the onagers will try to aim lower, misfire thus obliterating massive numbers from your line. When archers start firing, it the signal to turn off your onagers. And of course for your archers, I recommend placing them in a line of the same width of the legion between the Hastati and Principes. This will allow them to fire continuously, even if the Hastati go into a melee. A rule of thumb here is that Hastati are expendable troops and therefore friendly fire shouldn be treated as a big deal.

This will not guarantee you a victory nor are you required to set up the legion to these specifications. Remember the legion is flexible, so it is capable of bending to whatever purpose you require.

Coming soon, Part II: Post-Marius Legions