Battle Tactics: The Roman Camp and The Legions of the Domains of the Chosen

The Remains of a marching camp in England.

The Remains of a marching camp in England.

When I was a young lad, I was always fascinated by the Romans. The splendour and the efficiency of the Roman Republic and later, the Roman Empire with its colourful uniforms, grandiose architecture, gladiators,  and history of conquest were of great appeal to a kid who like to play at battles and read fantasy. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to understand the ugly side of that ancient civilization; the politics, slavery, the brutality of the arena, genocide and Roman imperialism. I still love Rome, but that love is tempered by a realization of its deep and abiding flaws, and in some cases my flaws as well.

The Domains of the Chosen Series, currently the novels Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale, Bloodlust: Will to Power, and the short story Bloodlust: The Great Games, flow from my interest in that great classical civilization. The Domains could be seen as  the Roman Empire with magic, fantasy races, and a great apocalypse thrown in (Tolkien, a little bit of Jordan, some Earthdawn, and a pinch of steampunk).

The Roman Legions are of particular interest. One of the few truly professional military forces of pre-modern times, the Legions were the catalyst for much of Roman politics, colonization, and efficiency, as well as the cutting edge of their scythe of conquest. They had their hands in many of Rome’s grand accomplishments, particularly Roman roads and Roman fort towns. I wanted the Legions of the Domains to be similarly involved in the politics of the Domains, a sort balancing factor  between the Chosen and the Popular factions. I also adopted many of the conventions used by the Legions, just for the sake of familiarity. One of these tactics, in particular, has ended up changing the principle action in my third book Warbound: The Shield Maiden.

My assumption was that the Legions of the Domains would create the same sort of camps (Castra) on the march. Keep in mind, as I discusssed last week, Warbound: The Shield Maiden is partly based on Xenophon’s Anabasis, a story about a Greek mercenary army on the march. This mix was all fine and dandy until today, when I realized that the idea of building a camp, on the march (they did it even when under attack!) would completely change the dynamic of such a journey. Let me break it down.

The creation of a temporary, fortified camp at the end of a day’s march changes dynamic of conflict in a number of ways

  • Safety: The obvious difference between an army with a regular camp and the Roman system was that the Castra was far safer. Attacks from larger forces and surprise assaults would be blunted by the fortifications. This ensure that the whole army was better rested and able to operate for longer. While the Castra is hardly a fortress, or even a Roman fort, it is certainly more than a speedbump. In particular it makes harassing attacks on the army less effective; the Castra was even built to foil ranged attacks against sleeping units. Being able to rest and arm in relative safety, in hostile territory, is important.
  • Safe Supply: When operating the Romans could use their Castra to protect the supplies they brought with them, and even the booty they looted. Supply disasters were the bane of medieval and tribal armies, which often could not fight for more than a few days without secure supply. The Roman system gave the Legion a great deal more endurance in this aspect as well. Even with an army surviving off forage, it makes a significant difference — you have an organized system to protect the vital supplies needed to make war, as well as the equipment to carry it.
  • Engineers in the Field: The Castra system demanded that the Romans bring engineers with them. These soldiers were immunes, not subject to regular duties and were in charge of making sure the camp was set up properly. They could commandeer labour as required. Because they brought these specialists with them, the Romans had a tremendous advantage in other forms of warfare. Their siege techniques and feats of battle engineering were beyond almost anything seen on the battlefield until the Rennaissance. Examples include the siege of Alesia where the Romans surrounded an entire town (~20km encirclement), very rapidly, with this:

    You wake up one morning and there it is. How would you feel?

    You wake up one morning and there it is. How would you feel?

  • The Mobile Republic: The Ten Thousand Greeks from the Anabasis are sometimes referred to as the mobile republic, or the marching republic. Removed from their homes, their leaders mostly lost, and perpetually on the brink of disaster the Ten Thousand made their decisions in a very interesting fashion, relying more on persuasion than chain of command. The Castra, and other facets of the Roman system of warfare, change this dynamic. With a camp system in place, non-combat personnel  are able to accompany the Legionnaires because they have a protected place to stay. Thus, these civilians become part of the discussions that form the stress points of the relationships in an Anabasis style tale. Additionally, the army is used to moving mass quantities of supplies very quickly, and will have its own supply train that can operate on campaign — something that very few traditional armies could match before the modern day.

On the downside, this revelation means that I will have to rethink several parts of the book because of this. Xenophon’s army was constantly harassed, fearful of larger forces, and always hungry for supplies. A Legion in the same position would be much more relaxed because of their camp structure and habit of bringing along a large group of pioneers, engineers, and other specialists like smiths to keep them operating in the field. On the plus side, I feel that the camp structure gives the Ninth Legion a better character. Modern readers admire endurance and intelligence, and the camp structure gifts the Legion with these qualities in abundance.

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