We’ve all seen in many roman movies like Gladiator and others the use of archers in roman warfare. I always believed their army to be the top of their age, and they were, because they were able to incorporate the best soldiers from each conquered culture. They assimilated archers from Syria and Crete notably, as well as Hispanic cavalry and African elephants. This is what makes it so interesting to study the roman military.
Romans did used archers from the Mid Republic onwards. Foot archers were an essential part of every roman legion. Most of them were incorporated from foreign territories as auxiliary units. Even horse archers participated in romans tactics as early as the 1st century.
Now let’s head on this complex but amazing army, the army that conquered almost an entire continent.
Did ancient Rome have archers?
The roman army were composed by their legionaries, troops armed with javelins and swords, cavalry units and auxiliary units. The roman citizen enrolled as a legionary or cavalry man if they had more money, but they were all were trained in the art of fighting in close combat with a short sword called “Gladius”. Their type of warfare was not heavily influenced by archery.
As the empire grew, new enemies appeared, and new cultures were assimilated into roman society. Some civilizations were well trained in archery such as the Cretans or the Syrians. They were both incorporated into roman legions as auxiliary units, which means that they are not citizens, and they are pay less than a regular legionary. But after 25 years of service, they are offered the roman citizenship and a small piece of land where they can rest as veterans.
This Foreign Auxiliary units were crucial part of roman military. They helped the empire conquer civilizations with different war tactics. The romans incorporated these archers as a way to counterattack the enemy archers. Auxiliary archers, or also called Sagittarii in Latin, support the main army as every general felt best, but still the fight was going to reach victory by the hands of the legionaries no matter what.
Did Romans use bows?
Yes they did, but more for hunting reasons. Roman culture was well trained in the use of swords and javelins. That part of the Mediterranean was not heavily into archery for military use. As Rome stepped into different cultures and cities like Crete or Syria, they saw the power of outstanding archers in the battlefield and for defensive purpose.
As a matter of fact, they even got horse archers when getting into Parthia and the Scythian territory. This auxiliary units probed their worth on the battlefield more than once. But still, for some reason, romans and most cultures from Italian territories did not like the use of bows as their weapon of choice for battles.
Did the romans have longbows?
Every roman legionary had a short sword called Gladius, a dagger called Pugio, one or two javelins called pilum and a huge shield named scutum, besides their regular armor and helmets. The archers within a roman legion were considered the auxiliary units. Along this auxiliary units, some legions used archers with some kind of long bow, mostly use from Germanic tribes.
This kind of long bow is not even close to the idea we have of an English longbow from the medieval times. Nevertheless, to answer the question, some legions had a Germanic longbow unit. But it wasn’t a weapon within a legionary arsenal or training.
Did the romans have crossbows?
The romans did know about crossbows. Greeks engineers had the prototypes and use some of these as giant crossbows called Ballistas. Romans took their ideas and improve them by making powerful ballistas and small bolt shooters named Scorpions, this where too big to be handled by a single man but smaller and easier to transport than a ballista. It wasn’t until the 11th century that Europe began using crossbows as part of their regular armies. Romans had them used as artillery and siege equipment because of their accuracy and amazing range.
No one use crossbows before medieval times?
The Chinese used crossbows by the 5th century B.C. They even had repeated crossbows which were able to shoot consecutive rounds of bolts. Some videogames like the traditional Age of Empires place these special crossbows as the main and star unit from the Chinese culture. Of course, we are talking about thousands of kilometers away from roman territory. So let’s head back to the roman topic.
Why didn’t the romans have their own archers?
This is a tricky question. So I am going to speculate from my expertise in Roman Military history. First of all, their military traditions and development were focused around close combat. They developed their training and weapons perfectly to counter the enemy in close combat situations where they proved over and over that their legions were the best. This could explain a lot why they didn’t feel comfortable in long range encounters, their training and philosophy was not focused on long range missile warfare.
On the other hand, as a culture that realized their own superior close combat power, they also noticed that some cultures had archers that could support an army with no skirmish training. Since they adopted these soldiers as the auxiliary units, their society never felt the need to develop an archery culture. Also, having the entirety of your archery team as a foreign non roman citizens unit, didn’t actually made the idea of becoming an archer very attractive to the young soldiers.
There are records from generals in Roman and Medieval times that felt the use of archery as a coward way to kill and fight. An honor-less type of war. During medieval times, even the Vatican forbidden the use of crossbows in fights between Christian states. Their argument was that a peasant with no training or honor shouldn’t be able to strike a knight with just a click from the crossbow. This is how people felt about the use of bows and arrows.
Nevertheless, they realized their importance in warfare. There are some records of Roman Generals using archers before the main legionary force made their move. Shooting from the distance to armies without any archer support. There are also Several generals who used their archers on the flanks of the army. Why? Because they were meant to support the cavalry and prevent the army from being flanked by enemy units. Their role was to keep the enemy in front of the legions.
Other Roman Generals found a good use to horse archers as skirmish units able to harass the enemy on the flanks, take down the enemy cavalry and also disrupt the front lines by getting close, shooting and then scaping on their horses.
Like I said, the role of archery was mostly a supportive role in the roman legions. Although they didn’t explore their fully capabilities, they were smart enough to find a use and assimilate each and every culture they found.
Hope you all enjoy the ride through roman history and archery.
Stay hungry, keep learning about archery, and never forget to practice.
Happy shooting and reading everybody.