I am currently reading Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". In Volume 1, he describes - from a high level - the daily discipline and activites of a Roman legion, the recruitment etc. etc. Although as a former professional soldier I am already acquainted with Roman military history, I have never seen a film or animation that is more or less widely accepted viz. canonical, and depicting what a fully deployed, post-Marian reform Roman legion acies must have looked. The only thing I know is that, for sure, it must have been a formidable sight. Gibbon gives a rather abstract description of the battle order:

"Besides their arms, which the legionaries scarcely considered as an encumbrance, they were laden with their kitchen furniture, the instruments of fortification, and the provision of many days. Under this weight, which would oppress the delicacy of a modern soldier, they were trained by a regular step to advance, in about six hours, near twenty miles. On the appearance of an enemy, they threw aside their baggage, and by easy and rapid evolutions converted the column of march into an order of battle. The slingers and archers skirmished in the front; the auxiliaries formed the first line, and were seconded or sustained by the strength of the legions; the cavalry covered the flanks, and the military engines were placed in the rear."

(Gibbon, "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", Vol. 1, Chapter 1 part III).

Hence, my question: any visual resources ? I am specifically after what an enemy commander would see, briefly before engaging a Roman legion on the battlefield. I mean: as seen through human eyes, on the battlefield, by someone facing a Roman legion, not a drawing or schematic.

PS I am not referring to the "small" legion of the Western Roman empire, but to the "classical" legion of 5000-6000 men

  • 2
    Movie Spartacus of 1960 has an interesting recreation of a Roman legion in order of battle.
    – Santiago
    Aug 30, 2019 at 13:17
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    I found this an interesting question - We discourage reference requests because they tend to be ephemeral and subjective, but I don't think that what OP is asking for here falls into that category. There is a problem in judging what is a realistic depiction of something we've never seen, but at least to my mind OP is asking (1) is there a reference that is canonical or at least credible?
    – MCW
    Aug 30, 2019 at 13:53
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    @Santiago - any chance you can expand on why that depiction is interesting and whether there is any scholarship to indicate that it is credible?
    – MCW
    Aug 30, 2019 at 13:55
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    Might this be adequately answered in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_infantry_tactics#Battle ? Aug 31, 2019 at 12:57
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    @JanvanOort: There are some pictures that lay out the checkerboard formations they used in battle. Isn't that what your question is about? Aug 31, 2019 at 13:28

1 Answer 1


I'm not an expert on Roman military tactics, so I don't know how accurate this is, and they don't mention or link any specific scholarly sources, but I found a youtube video from an educational account about this. Hopefully someone who knows about this stuff can comment on its reliability, but they have rather a lot of historical videos of this kind of stuff, so I sure hope its not all nonsense. Either way, you can compare its visual presentation to what Gibbon reported.


It uses a lot of footage from Spartacus, like Santiago suggested in the comments, as well as some footage from the recent HBO series Rome from 2005. The basic gist seems to be that they marched to battle in a huge checkerboard pattern (quincunx), then each maniple would deploy into a line (triplex acies) that appeared from the vid to be 8 men deep. Front ranks would move to the back to rest after a little while, so each position in the line operated like a conveyor belt keeping the freshest men on the front.

Here's another video I found going into detail about how the "maniple swap" was accomplished. Dude says he's researching this for a graphic novel he's working on. He's critical of a lot of what's in those two videos, so its probably good to listen to afterwards as a caveat to that other video's presentations.

  • Perhaps it should be noteworthy that Spartacus was directed by Kubrick, a guy famous for his obsessive attention to detail, whether B52 cockpit, French WW1 uniforms, Barry Lyndon, (although perhaps even more influential for his 'war room' or 2001-stuff)… Not any kind of evidence by itself, but one can be sure he made an honest attempt at research, giving that priority over any kind of Ball-play. Aug 31, 2019 at 16:34
  • Yeah. But of course its also fairly old, and he just didn't have the resources available to someone willing to put in that kind of effort today. The second vid actually spends some time criticizing it (but again, there are disputes about some of this stuff, and he had to pick something to film, and preferably something that looked good on film). Getting into all that would potentially double the size of this answer for far less than twice the enlightenment.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 31, 2019 at 16:38
  • Agreed, but 'not the resources' might be a plus for "how a human would see it": no CGI-drivel. Aug 31, 2019 at 16:41
  • @T.E.D. Thank you. I'm going to accept this as an answer, as this material is probably the best around. Mucho impressed. Sep 1, 2019 at 10:58

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