Full Version: Single Century Sent On Missions/Patrols?
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I am doing some early development and research for an alternate history/fantasy I would like to write, and I have some questions on Roman military practices. My plot involves a legion being deployed to police an area and to roundup or destroy pockets of resistance. My thought is that since the resistance isn't really organized or centralized, the most effective method the legion could take is to have its centuries out on patrol, maybe gather intelligence on meetings or whatever, and ambush or attack the renegades when they find them. My main character is an Optio in such a century and the opening scene is an ambush on a group of about 100 renegades/bandits.

Does this sound feasible? Would a century be, more or less, left to its own devices while it was out on patrol? Would it make sense for them to engage a similar sized (though disorganized and not well trained) enemy as part of its patrol?

What would the tactics of the century be in engaging the enemy, if the above is fine? I am thinking that the century would divide in half and come at them from two sides, to prevent the enemy from scattering. Is that something they would do? Would it be normal for the centurion to command one half and the Optio command the other half? Where would the Optio be in the engagement? I am thinking in the center of the line, but I am not sure. What would the line look like? They wouldn't have enough men to effectively have a 3-line formation, so I am thinking a single line would be their best tactic. How close would each legionnaire stand to each other? Would the Optio have a Pilum?

Sorry for the barrage of questions, but I want to make sure my scene makes sense. If not, I'll rethink the scene.
I would not think that a century would operate in any such way as far as renegades or bandits were concerned, the Romans had a way of dealing with this kind of thing were if it continued they would explain to such people that the only answer would be Atrosita.
This is where they might let it go on for so long then after a final warning they would wipe out the whole tribe that were creating this problem, and this was where they would kill every man woman child cat and dog Amen.
Indeed such a thing did take place in north Wales where the Romans wiped out the Ordovicii tribe for just such tactics against them.
I'm sure there were instances when smaller units of Roman troops were involved in combat in this way; the trouble is, we are almost entirely reliant on literary sources for our accounts of what the Roman army got up to, and most such sources either concern themselves only the activities of larger bodies of men, or are quite vague about the numbers involved.

Usual practice for reconnaissance would be to sent out speculatores or exploratores - scouts, often mounted, selected from among the legionaries or auxiliary troops and operating in small irregular groups. These scouts would not usually be expected to engage in combat; the idea would be to identify the main body of the enemy and then report back so a greater strength could be brought to bear.

Maurice's Strategikon (a very late Roman source, but containing details surely applicable to earlier practice) does mention patrols sent out from the main camp to gather intelligence. Excerpts of it are online here - do a word search for 'patrol' and follow the links). He doesn't specify how many men should be in a patrol though, only that they should have good leaders and the men should not be warned of their duty in advance, to stop them making plans to desert!

There are other references in literary sources to stationarii (soldiers detached in support of the civil authorities, as paramilitary police, or to guard roads etc) acting against brigands, but as far as I know these accounts aren't sufficiently detailed to give an idea of numbers or tactics.

If legionaries were detached from their legion to operate independently, the usual practice seems to have been to group them into a vexillation - often containing men from various different cohorts - under the command of an officer, often a centurion, given the temporary title of praepositus. These vexillations could perhaps have been quite small, depending on their intended mission.

However, not much of this helps in addressing the original question! While there are accounts of Roman troops ambushing raiders or brigands, the numbers involved are usually much higher. One idea might be to have your legionary century operating with cavalry support - the legionaries keep together and fight as a unit, while the cavalry circles around and attacks the enemy from behind. That would seem to make the best use of the fighting abilities of both.

The optio, however, as far we know, was equipped the same as the other legionaries...
I think that a very important detail here would be the era in which your plot takes place.
I don't have a particular era in mind. I was thinking maybe the late republic era, but I haven't decided. I've been slowly reading my way through various websites on ancient Rome, trying to pin that down, but still have a bit of reading to do. My story isn't really centered around the politics or major events of the Roman empire. That will mostly be background noise, if I touch on it at all. Though, the more I read, the more I want to include. Originally I was thinking of doing it very early in the empire, maybe even when it was still considered a kingdom, but the more I read about the later events and culture, the more I want to use that.

I think, based on the responses here and other sites, that my idea of the century being out on some sort of patrol is acceptable. Like said here, not much is known about the movements and deployments of smaller units. So, at least my plot won't seem especially out of place if read by a history buff.

Thanks for the responses. They have been a great help, and feel free to provide any other information or insight you might feel beneficial. Smile
Depends... a century is quite a heavy unit to send out as scouts. As an escort yes, as a garrison sure, but to scout ahead, some miles before the main army or in forests? Very unlikely unless a more sizable, fuller force was necessary for the task, such as a cohort, in which case, the centuries would be included. A century is a small unsupported body of heavily armed infantrymen, so why would you send them out as scouts without cavalry and light infantry? So,

1. If you want your men to be patrolling ahead, you should send out a small body of cavalry a turma or even an ala if resistance is expected.

2. If you want your men to patrol near a camp, then a few horsemen would be sufficient.

3. If you want stationary guards around the camp, then a few horsemen, auxilia or light infantry would do the job.

4. If you want guards inside the camp or just outside the trench, then a few legionaries would also be OK.

5. If you want an aggressive unit that may act on its own, then you would send out a whole cohort (even more than one), maybe some cavalry too, assuming your main force is a legion or more. In later times, when cohorts are only heavy infantry, you would certainly send out auxiliary units along.

6. If your main force is a cohort or small legion and you would like to set up an ambush, attack a certain village etc, then you might send out a century supported by light infantry and some horse.

7. If allies are present, they would be preferred as scouts.

As you see the possibilities are many, but the timeframe, the terrain, the task at hand, the nature of the enemy and the size and composition of the main force are all variables that must be taken into account. I understand your wish to have a century of men who trust and depend on each other, but I really doubt that a regular republican or even early imperial century would be REGULARLY sent out alone and unsupported by light infantry and/or cavalry. I think that the rest of the posts more or less also support this opinion, albeit a bit less directly.
There is not that much known about te romans and police-function in the provinces. Police, was the duty of the cities. However the army supported against revolts or organized crime like pirates or bigger gangs.

In the 2nd century AD we know of the stationarii. Led by a beneficarius commanding perhaps just a few men. We also know about a function which was called centurio regionarius. That was a kind of bigger local police station. Plinius asked Trajan to establish such a centurio in Byzantium. Most probably more legionairs than the stationarii. But it is unsure, if this centurio commanded a full centuria. It perhaps depended on the situation.

The romans were pretty pragmatic. If there was some job to be done, they simply used the next available officer or civil clerk to deal with it. For example in Italy it could happen, that a curator viarum got the same task for Apulia as the local fleet commander for Calabria. Qualification was not that important. A roman of a certain social level had to be able to do everything.

So such a centurio regionarius most probably dealt with everything regarding roman military and civil affairs. So if there is anywhere a roman centurio in a fort or in whatever location with 80 men or more or less, and he gets an order to do whatever, or sees a need to act on behalf of Rome, he will act. Simple like that.

Regarding formation: We have no clue, how the romans fought outside of battlefields.

PS: But I doubt, the romans would send a centuria to deal with 100 bandits. I rather expect a cohors or two, plus cavalry. Well, but if your centurio is a brave idiot, which happens in novels ....
Hmmm... Food for thought and research. Thanks again and keep it coming. Smile

I am not against the century having supporting cavalry or auxiliary troops, or even being a full cohort. I would just need to re-think the opening scene a bit.

I want the opening scene to be the MC and his century(and supporting troops or other centuries or whatever) to attack and overwhelm a group of bandits/renegades. The fight goes well and they quickly scatter/smash the bandits. During the cleanup, I want the MC to be sniped by either remnants of the bandits or possibly another group. The way I see it, if the force of Romans is too strong, no remnants or other band will be willing to engage them in the moment of their victory. They need to be strong enough to smash the untrained and unorganized renegades but not strong enough to discourage zealous/brave renegades. If I need to rethink the scene, I suppose I could have him injured in some other way. The story is dependent on him being injured shortly after the initial engagement, though. He finds an item on one of the renegades shortly before being injured. He is left for dead while his troops pursue/retreat from the renegades. He needs to be injured and left alone for at least a few minutes. I could change him to a more scout type of soldier, but I felt it important that he is a legionnaire and in some sort of leadership role, even if it is only an Optio.
It could be an optio, who was send from the legions legate to the regional procurator to get the pay for the legion. That was needed 3 times a year (before Domitian, afterwards 4 times). If in republican times, replace procurator by quaestor of the province.

I would say, a signifer is more appropriate. The signifers dealt with the accounts of the soldiers. While the optio was deputy commander and probably responsible for training and daily military services, the signifer was propably the head of the centurias administration. Nevertheless, also an NCO. I remember of at least one ancient source, were a signifer was sent to get the money from the procurator.

We don't know how big such a group of soldiers (vexillatio) was. Perhaps just a few dozen. Usually enough to protect the money. I guess some bandits or rebels could be greedy enough, to take the risk and attack this group.

Another option would be: a clerk of the quaestor (librarius) was sent to the local tribes to buy grain. The romans payed lousy prices or simply confiscated it, if needed. So they were not very welcome.

We know of a procurator in the province of Asia. He had to buy grain for the legions marching from Europe to Syria. He was accompanied by a centurio, a beneficarius and about 10 legionairs. So replace centurio by optio, and take whatever number of legionairs you think are appropriate.

Or take a group of land surveyors. They planned a new street. Also not that welcome. Accompanied by an optio plus a few dozen men.

It is a safe guess, that vexillationes smaller than a centuria were often led by an optio, signifer or beneficarius.
I believe that Roman auxiliaries and possibly legions were parceled out across Judaea (aka Palestine) after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt during the reign of Hadrian. The Hebrews kept fighting in small groups even after Bar-Kokhba and his army were destroyed, and several semi-permanent camps that supposedly could only house about 80 men were found near wadis and cave networks to pin down the little groups of fighters that were hidden there.

Sorry, I'm at work so I don't have any sources for that information. Other than that I don't really know any references to single centuries patrolling at any distance from the main body. I think a full cohort or vexillation would be more accurate. But again, we really don't know for sure.

And the Optio would be armed and armored just like the other legionaries.
If I may, I would like to add/suggest...

Considering the period of the Late Republic (if that is indeed your chosen time-frame, which I tend to think of as the Post-Marian period until the establishment of the Principate), then you would be looking at the time of the early professional legions, who would be supported by non-professional allies and mercenaries (for any specialist infantry and all the cavalry); which may give you further plot options. Legions seem to have stayed together in the main, often pairing off in joint camps (or larger if the whole army was deployed in one place), however, cohorts were often detached to hold particular locales - and this is what I would suggest - a detached cohort (or perhaps a pair or more if that helps) sent to help keep somewhere pacified (perhaps a supply base or route).

On that basis I would be thinking of a 6-century/3-maniple cohort in a small fort; a maniple on regular duty/rest; one on fatigues; and therefore it's a whole maniple that is sent on a patrol/ambush - which gives you rather more scope for detachments and enough men (bearing in mind they are on foot) to consider an ambush against ~100.

Having given a good deal of thought over the last couple of years, I would suggest the likely structure of the century to be 60 heavy legionaries plus 20 'lighter' or 'antesignanii' troops and each having a centurion, optio and signifer (with a senior and junior of each). The antesignanii are most likely from the writings of the period and certainly well suggested by Josephus (BJ), although writing a little later - but, more importantly for you, give you greater tactical options; especially as they are armed with hasta and lancea (light javelins) instead of pila.

In the main battle line I would expect the centuries to form next to each other 10 files/contubernia wide and 6 ranks deep, but you would certainly get more coverage along the length of the ambush line if they were formed only 3 deep; which would still be of sufficient depth to likely prevent breakthrough of the ambushed. From your OP, each century would normally be commanded from the rear right where the centurion and signifer would stand, whilst the optio covers the rear left (his prime duty in combat is most probably to keep the ranks closed up, stop anyone 'stepping back' and organising the clearance of dead and wounded who would otherwise be in the way. He would not have a pilum.

The scenario you may then be looking for is to have the antesignanii detached, so that the two 'fighting' centuries are commanded by the senior centurion and junior optio, whilst the junior centurion and senior optio (your man) take 20 antesignanii each who, with their spears, are the chosen troops to block off each end of the ambush and carry out any limited follow-up.

Your individual scenario then has the ambush go off as planned, the enemy band is devastated by the opening pila-volley, for [insert whatever reason] can only escape (normal anti-ambush drills) through the centuries - and fail. A few hardy individuals, however, break either forwards or backwards and meet up with your optio and his blocking force, he gets injured, but his men finish off hunting down the few and therefore leave him for a few minutes until the force re-organises.

Thank you again for all the responses.

I have decided to go with a larger force. The problem I was having was that the Optio finds something on an enemy soldier, then subsequently becomes injured and left alone for at least a few minutes. I couldn't envision a solider stooping down to grab something off an enemy while in the middle of combat. So, I needed two confrontations with some sort of break between the two. Originally I had wanted the two events to be fairly close, to give the Optio enough time to pocket the item but not enough time to investigate it or think on it much. But I think I can have him grab the item in an earlier engagement and then he keeps it as a good luck piece. He then gets injured later and is left alone. This fixes the timing and force size issue.

One question (and maybe this needs to be a new topic) is whether or not legionnaires were transferred around much or if they stayed with the same century/cohort for long periods. I know that some cohorts were ranked based on the experience and skill of the soldiers (1st cohort was the elite troops, 7th and 9th typically recruits in training), but does that mean individual soldiers were moved from cohort to cohort as they showed skill, or was the cohort as a whole promoted as it got better? Would a legionnaire start out one one campaign in the back of the group, mostly trying to stay out of the way, then transfer around and be reassigned to other groups/cohorts/legions as he advances? Or does a legionnaire stay in a single century/cohort for his entire career, except if promoted to Centurion or something?
Quote:One question (and maybe this needs to be a new topic) is whether or not legionnaires were transferred around much or if they stayed with the same century/cohort for long periods. I know that some cohorts were ranked based on the experience and skill of the soldiers (1st cohort was the elite troops, 7th and 9th typically recruits in training), but does that mean individual soldiers were moved from cohort to cohort as they showed skill, or was the cohort as a whole promoted as it got better? Would a legionnaire start out one one campaign in the back of the group, mostly trying to stay out of the way, then transfer around and be reassigned to other groups/cohorts/legions as he advances? Or does a legionnaire stay in a single century/cohort for his entire career, except if promoted to Centurion or something?

Actually we don't know that much about the careers of ordinary soldiers. Looking to centurios and also to NCOs we know much more, and transfers amongst cohorts and legions/auxilia were usual. Interestingly, not that often amongst the latin and greek part of the roman army for the NCOs and lower centurions.

Ordinary soldiers, were probably not transfered that often. A contubernium was a tight-knit community by a reason. I guess, that transfers happened after initial training, and afterwards rather rarely. But that is just a guess.
Quote:................... I couldn't envision a solider stooping down to grab something off an enemy while in the middle of combat. .......................

Big Grin

Have no fear! If this is something you wished to do, then it would be completely realistic. Soldiers throughout history (pick any period) have been known to kill/maim/take prisoner someone and then immediately loot them (especially if it's something obvious). Napoleonic soldiers are attested marching over their fallen comrades in an attacking column and filching anything and everything so that they are left nearly naked by the end of passage!

Actual combat in a battle is for very brief periods - there's plenty of time for a soldier to enrich themselves and they often have to be chased and harried back into action. :-)
Even from quite early times troops could be sent out on expeditions and when doing so they were often called 'expediti'. There were also armed civilians who were pressed into service against bandits etc and they were called something along the lines of Diogmiae (excuse the spelling!)
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