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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsIt's commonplace to speak of the Roman Army as if we're dealing with one unchanging entity. But this is wrong. Rome had many armies. Under the Republic, different generals would raise their own armies and often find themselves in competition with one another. Under the empire, when power was in the hands of one individual and all soldiers technically swore their oath to the emperor, soldiers would still identify strongly with provincial armies and regional armies. The differences between these provincial armies might seem to the modern observer to be relatively superficial when we look at them in terms of equipment, for example. But actually, these differences could have profound consequences when many different individuals sought imperial power at the same time.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 secondsAlongside this regional dimension was another very important force. Time. We're used to seeing Roman soldiers depicted in a fairly standard way. The lorica segmentata, or plate armour, figure who appears so often as a shorthand for a Roman soldier. But Roman equipment and tactics changed in response to new threats externally and cultural change internally. Rome had fielded armies for centuries before Claudius' army of conquest came to Britain in AD 43. Now at that stage, it was already a complex and sophisticated fighting force. But centuries of development still lay ahead. The soldiers of Claudius' army would have looked very strange and unfamiliar to the soldiers who represented imperial power in Britain three and a half centuries later.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 secondsThis week, we're going to look at the organisation, equipment, and composition of the Roman army in Britain. We'll look at the force that between AD 43 and AD 122 pushed north into what is now Scotland and then subsequently withdrew to the Tyne-Solway line where Hadrian's Wall was established. We will study the army that built Hadrian's Wall and the force that guarded it subsequently. And then we will look at the late Roman army, the force that was to provide Rome's military presence here right up until the collapse of Roman authority in Britain in the early fifth century. As we study the army, it's vital that we do not become too clinical. Yes, it's important to think of it as an organisation.

Skip to 3 minutes and 9 secondsIt's vital to be aware of it as a social phenomenon. But it's also essential to remember that element of violence that characterised its presence in Britain. And so in our concluding exercise, we will tackle that head on with a forensic examination of one of the most dramatic discoveries to be made on Hadrian's Wall.

Introducing the changing faces of Rome's armies

‘The most important single factor in the whole of Roman history is quite simply the success of the Roman army’ wrote John Mann in 1974. That army had been called the ‘ultimate war machine’ and has inspired generations of military men with its organisation, tactics and victories. But in their enthusiasm to study an army at the peak of its battlefield efficiency, students have sometimes overlooked not simply the way in which the Roman military changed over time, but also the way in which it varied, from place to place and unit to unit.

Acknowledging this variety, and recognising that there was much more to the soldiery than their battlefield exploits, does not diminish the importance of military success to Roman history. It does help us to understand how the frontiers worked and, no less importantly, how Roman provincial society evolved.

In this introductory video we aim to show you what you can expect of this week. There is violence, certainly, but there are also profoundly important points to consider in terms of how and why Rome’s armies changed. So we will look at both the army of conquest, the force that swept through Britain in the decades following the Claudian invasion of AD 43, but also at the force that garrisoned Hadrian’s Wall from the second century onwards.

Mann, J. C. 1974 ‘The Frontiers of the Principate’, in Temporini, H. (ed) Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt 2. 1 508-533, p. 509 (out of print)

If you are looking for an introduction to the broader military history of Rome, we would particularly recommend both: Goldsworthy, A. K. 2007 Roman Warfare, and Phoenix & James, S.J. 2011 Rome and the Sword: How warriors and weapons shaped Roman History, London: Thames and Hudson.

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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