Mars Triumphant - Late Roman Drill
with the exercise of foot in their motions
Comitatus should be rightly proud of their drill, developed very quickly back in 2002. New members often see it as some sort of Latin obstacle course, a mystical discourse of confusing terms and pronunciations. But in fact it is simple, straightforward and well founded upon the experience of our ancestors.
It is possible that ever since men lined up to fight each other there has been some system of manoeuvre. But our drill probably started to evolve in 8th century BC when the Greeks started to develop a well-ordered system of fighting based around the “hoplite” or armoured man. Our knowledge of the working of the armoured phalanx of hoplites comes from the beginning of the 4th century. It seems initially that files of 8 men were lead at the front by the file leader. The front right hand marker was the officer commanding the unit. The second officer stood outside the formation to the rear of the phalanx to keep troops in formation.
By the time of Xenophon writing at the beginning of the 4th century, the Spartan army, considered the model for all others, was undergoing a period of re-organisation. As a response to deeper enemy formations, the files were now 12 deep, still lead by a file leader, seconded by an officer now in the rear rank, with a third officer as a half-file leader. A basic unit of 36 men could by halving its file depth, form a formation 12 or 6 men deep.
Formations were either in order, open order or close order, the latter to withstand a charge. Little time was spent on weapon practice, but there were simple postures, which can be gleaned for the art of the period.
At ease troops would rest their shields on the ground, and lean on their spears. At attention troops would cover their body with their shields and raise their spear onto their right shoulder. From there the soldier could quickly go “on guard” by bringing his spear down to point at the enemy. The spear but would need to clear the rear ranks so the troops initially took up the over arm thrust.
Seven hundred years before our drill, all the basics are already in place.
The Thebans had deepened their formations, and the Macedonians learnt much from them. Initially their file seems to have formed 10 men deep, their file been called a dekas. However by the time of Alexander the Macedonian army had adopted the files of 8, 16 and 32 men deep. Troops were formed up in an order of precedence, which decided the level of pay. These deeper formations used the pike, getting longer through time.
Polybius is the most reliable of writers on drill from the classical period. He describes the phalanx of the later Hellenistic period. Some of his works are lost but are referred to by Arrian in his Ars Tactica. By now the study of the structure, drill and tactics of the phalanx was almost a branch of philosophy. The writer Asclepiodotus gives us a description of an idealised phalanx, which is copied by Arrian. Disregarding the ranks and duties of the officers, these describe files of 16, split into units of 4, with every man knowing his place in the formation. The half and quarter files are brought up using half and quarter file leaders.
Postures have altered due to the nature of the equipment. At ease the pikeman leant on his pike, while his shield was strapped over his back and left shoulder. The shield was pulled around and strapped to his left arm when called to attention. Orders were sent using trumpets and flags. The troops would form on the battlefield in open files, which would allow room for the half-files to half the ranks, resulting in a formation at order or even close order.
Countermarching was done by three basic methods, depending on the space available. The Macedonians marched past the file leader and formed behind him, before facing about. The Spartans marched past the rear file marker and formed in front of him. We used the Cretan or Persian counter march, where everybody swaps position in the same area of ground.
THE ROMAN TRADITION
By the 4th century BC the Romans had moved away from the Hoplite tradition and developed the legion around maniples of centuries. The size of the century varied with the size of the army, and while the large shield, javelin and sword combination were coming to the fore, writers like Livy struggle to explain such a flexible system. It takes the Greek Polybius, to describe the Roman army in better detail from the second century BC. It is possible to see the spacings of open order of 6 feet per man, order of three feet per man and close order of 1 1/2 feet per man, man by bringing up half files. Much responsibility rested upon the centurions and junior officers, who would have needed initiative as well as bravery. Cohorts consisting of centuries are mentioned.
Comitatus is lucky in that we have two well-known sources for drill giving us information for our period. Vegetius writing in the 390’s gives us information on how to deploy the cohorts, as well as other formations such as the “pigs head”. Much of the work is theoretical, and harks back to a glorious past. It may not give the standard practice of the early 5th century army. But it does impart much useful information and in many ways became the military manual of the Middle Ages. The Emperor Maurice, writing in the 590’s AD gives us actual Latin orders and basic drill for his Eastern army. It is designed as a field manual for serving officers, and it reads like a Comitatus guidebook. On top of this we can even read of the experiences of Ammianus Marcellinus, a serving officer in 353-363 AD.
Comitatus drill commands come straight from Maurice, complete with grammatical errors. The author wries in Greek, but his orders are given in Latin. I can see only one case for deviating from this excellent model. Maurice would have had to use relatively poor quality infantry, who may not have had much unit cohesion. To double files the infantry in effect number each other off. The number two would step forward to the left of the file leader. The number four would step to the left of the number three. The number six would step forward to the right of the number five, and so on. Troops would not need to know their position in the formation, or their precedence. You would just watch what was happening in front of you and do what was necessary. Interestingly this style of doubling the files was adopted by the mass armies of the nineteenth century. It is not so different to that of the American Civil War.
THE MILLITARY REVOLUTION OF THE 17TH CENTURY
It is useful to study the writers of the seventeenth century, since like us they try to understand the drill of classical writers and put them into practice. Macchiavelli in his “Art of War” in 1525 tries to use translations of classical authors to produce a military system for his city of Florence. He promises much, but really fails to deliver. Military theorists just could not afford to pay a standing army with which they could test their principles. And in truth they don’t fully understand the writings of Vegetius or Maurice.
However the Dutch leader Maurice of Orange, and his cousins William Louis and John were able to practice classical theory. They used lead figures and wargames to rediscover classical tactics and drill. A complete military system was introduced to the Dutch army based mainly on Claudius Aelianus, involving distance, facings, doublings, countermarching and wheeling. These are the five basic aspects of any drill, but countermarching was particularly important for an army dependant on black powder muzzle loading muskets.
The new Dutch practice was adopted by Protestant Europe and even those countries that did not adopt the system saw the benefit of smaller shallower units, as well as the discipline involved. Gustavus Adolphus further developed the Dutch system to produce files of 6 men, with more mobility and firepower.
There are far too many drill books of this period to even attempt to list them all. Many just copied each other, and fashionable companies of gentlemen practiced drill manoeuvres. But in this country the English Civil War saw theory put into practice, and the worst of theory put on the scrap heap. Colonel William Barriffe writing in 1639 and 1661 is the archetypical period drill book. He struggles with doubtful advice given by theoretical classical authors like Vegetius, and clearly states what has been learnt from hard practice.
Soldiers are taught distance, facings, doublings, countermarching and wheeling. For Comitatus most of these are simple, and countermarching not so vital as for musketeers. But as ever the doublings are interesting. He adopts the 8 man file, but believes the files should be shallower to prevent a shortening of the battle-line. He can double his files by half files or by bringing up the file closer at the rear of the formation. The latter drill involves the rear file marker marching up the left of the file, and collecting each soldier behind him as he marches up the file. This is a simple drill for troops who have no idea where their precedence is within the block. They just follow their fellows, until the file halves its depth. However much of the book is given to precedence and where troops should stand depending upon their rank or experience.
We teach the spacings of open order, order and close order. We prefer to manoeuvre in order because it is easy for members to maintain their rank and file. Put simply, order means you are close to the people either side of you, with enough room between you and the rank in front of you so you do not impale them with your butt spike. If the arena is large we manoeuvre in open order but much more attention needs to be given to keeping rank and file. The file leader is on the front right of the formation. He will maintain rank and file with help from the file closer and veterans within the formation. The front right hand marker is always RIGHT, even when he is wrong!
Wheelings in order are done by touching the person next to you on the inside of the wheel, and by looking out along the line to maintain formation.
Facings are to the left, right and right about, always showing the enemy your shielded side.
Doublings are done by the half file and quarter file. The half and quarter file leaders are designated by the praepositus, and are normally “given the eye” before orders are given to double or half files. Doublings are often done in open files, except when moving into close order files.
Countermarching is done within the formation, using the Cretan or Persian method.
The postures are kept very simple and as generally described above for classical Greek armies. But small changes are made based upon the Dutch system of the seventeenth century. Spears are held vertically with the butts slightly forward of the right foot, elbow at 90 degrees. Spears are held on the shoulder at 45 degrees with the elbow held at a right angle. The positions given to prepare for combat are partly supposition.
Although there is much reference made to military step, and marching to music throughout history, nowhere does it mention marching in step until the 18th century. Comitatus lead with the left foot as laid out in later manuals, but we do not as yet march in step. The file leader will set the speed.
War does not depend just on brute strength, or skill. It depends also on research and reading. As at least one seventeenth century soldier read, “Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight. March on boys”.