Old School Strength (II) – Nemo Metuit Facere Quod Se Bene Didicisse Confidit

Part I traced ‘Old School’ strength to the training of the Roman legions after 107 BC. Part II takes a closer look at the sources. (Around 6.000 words, estimated reading time 30. min, only 22 min if you already know your classics.)

The first installment of this series traced Old School Strength to military fitness standards imposed on the Roman legions in the wake of the Marian reforms and the gradual professionalization of the Roman army.

There was some poetic license in describing Marius as a fitness reformer. It’s unavoidable in popular history, where ascribing beliefs and intentions to historical figures is a common way to close the time gap between them and the audience. But it’s also all too tempting to take stylistic shortcuts for historical hypotheses and forget about due scientific diligence. Which is what today’s post is about.

In fact, Marius did enact a fitness revolution but it was not unprecedented. He took a few pages of old books (including his own patron-turned-political-rival Quintus Caecilius Metellus) and turned them into a state-sponsored fitness program implemented on a large scale. And it became a model for ages to come.

I will be mostly concerned with Marius’ posterity in the late Empire but that’s not my endgame. I’m going to suggest that the legacy of Roman Fitness should extend much further. With Westerners beginning to die from just being too inactive and too weak we would be well-inspired to take a few pages from Roman books.

After all, they solved a similar fitness problem with pre-chemical medicine, pre-paleo diet, and pre-steroid bodybuilding. Before we get into the details, a word of caution. Or, should I say, a caveat.


In a distant past, I’ve been a reasonably competent Latin speaker and Roman history buff. Although I’ve lost my Latin (but I’m working to get it back) this series has revived my enthusiasm, and I easily get carried away in long-winded excursus (or should I say excursus). So here’s a guide to navigating this post if you want to avoid getting lost in too many details:

  1. The first section (A Summary of the Military Subject Matter) is essentially a discussion of historical sources with some context and speculations. If you are more into practicalities, you can jump straight to Pages From the Old Books.
  2. This post includes, by necessity, big chunks of ancient texts. If you do not care for the details, you can skip everything which is between vertical lines. I’ve tried to include short quotes summing up what matters most whenever possible.

A Summary of the Military Subject Matter

The most comprehensive source of information about the training of the Roman legions is a late-Roman tract written by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (or simply, Vegetius) sometime around 400 CE, and whose title, Epitoma rei militaris, translates roughly as “A Summary of the Military Subject Matter”.

Vegetius was not a historian but what we would call today a ‘subject matter expert’ and he was writing for the edification of the then-emperor (either Theodosius the Great, or Valentinian III). True to the epitome genre, the Epitoma rei militaris (hereafter ERM) is a scissors-and-paste patchwork from earlier sources, augmented with interpolations from the author when it serves the purpose of his demonstration. Kind of what a military subject matter expert would do nowadays when you think of it.

Now, and to put it mildly, the ERM is of dubious historical value about the past Vegetius is praising and gappy about the present he’s whining about. Still, there is much to learn from reading it, provided that we take its claims with a grain of salt.

The secret of Rome’s (past) success

The military situation of Vegetius’ time is not brilliant (more on this later) and the ERM walks a fine line between suggesting improvements and hinting at leadership and strategic shortcomings. Still, Vegetius has a very precise idea of what would help restore Rome to her former glory, when the Romans knew how to conquer and foreigners, how to stay put.

It’s called training.

Vegetius also has a good grasp on rhetorics and refrains from implying right away that Roman military leadership is borderline incompetent and Roman-led troops are slackers. He does both later but introduces with a captatio benevolentiae (literally, “winning of goodwill”) typical of how Romans can turn their inferiority complex into bragging rights.

1. That the Romans conquered all peoples solely because of their military training. In every battle it is not numbers and untaught bravery so much as skill and training that generally produce the victory. For we see no other explanation of the conquest of the world by the Roman People than their drill-at-arms, camp-discipline and military expertise. How else could small Roman forces have availed against hordes of Gauls? How could small stature have ventured to confront Germanic tallness? That the Spaniards surpassed our men not only in numbers but in physical strength is obvious. To Africans’ treachery and money we were always unequal. No one doubted that we were surpassed by the arts and intelligence of the Greeks. But what succeeded against all of them was careful selection of recruits, instruction in the rules, so to speak, of war, toughening in daily exercises, prior acquaintance in field practice with all possible eventualities in war and battle, and strict punishment of cowardice. Scientific knowledge of warfare nurtures courage in battle. No one is afraid to do what he is confident of having learned well. A small force which is highly trained in the conflicts of war is more apt to victory: a raw and untrained horde is always exposed to slaughter.[1]

The first paragraph is quite beautifully rendered by the translator (N.P. Milner) and the next-to-last sentence would make a fine motivational quote. It’s even better in Latin [Nemo metuit facere quod se bene didicisse confidit] but I doubt about its future as a meme.

No one is afraid to do what he is confident of having learned well

Vegetius, De Re Militari, I.1

After this allusion to the good old days, Vegetius prefers not to mention explicitly the current events (which accounts for the difficulty of dating the ERM precisely). And he should not be blamed for it. There would be little point reminding the Emperor of his failure to live up to the example of his predecessors. Let him work out by himself the allusions, fill the gaps, etc. Unfortunately, we can’t do the same. More than sixteen centuries later, the details have faded away from our collective memory.

And that’s potentially an issue because working out the allusions is a conditions to figure out whether the military advice is any good. Which we need to do, because the fitness advice follows from the military advice and if the military advice is no good, the fitness advice probably isn’t either. Fortunately, we can actually figure that out.

But this requires some context about Vegetius’ time and the historical comparisons he has in mind.

Making Rome great again

Under Emperor Theodosius (the likely addressee of Vegetius’ work), Rome is fighting a war of extinction against Goth invaders. Facing a shortage of domestic troops, Theodosius has recruited Goth mercenaries from other tribes but they show no loyalty towards the Empire and little towards himself. The behavior of his troops has earned him an excommunication (sometime around 390 CE).

Now, you understand why Vegetius would avoid the discussion of current events. As I said, no need to remind the reader of leadership issues. Better focus on how great Rome used to be and how to make it great again.

Strangely enough, Vegetius seems to have a fetish for the pre-Marian late Republican army. In fact, his advice often amounts to rolling back changes introduced by Marius in both the organization of the troops and the rules of engagement. Given the role of Marius in setting standards of military training, that’s puzzling, to say the least.

Vegetius’ bias towards pre-Marian legions likely stems from a parallel between his time and the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), when Rome had been fighting a war of extinction against Carthaginian invaders led by Rome’s greatest nemesis, the general Hannibal Barca. His victory at the battle of Cannae (216 BCE) had been one of the worst military disasters in Roman history. After Cannae, the Senate did not dare let the legions anywhere close to Hannibal for nearly fifteen years

Eventually, they would allow P. Cornelius Scipio (later Africanus) to march against him, but mostly because Scipio had gathered his own private army and would have done it anyway. The Senate did not dare risk that Scipio’s troops would try to proclaim him king and that he’d be tempted to accept. They had tried already in Hispania and he had declined, but he was closer to home this time around and quite pissed at the Senate’s initial refusal to let him raise troops the regular way.

Scipio was a military genius and had never been defeated. Same as Hannibal until they met at the battle of Zama (202 BCE). There, Scipio pulled out some innovative tactics to get rid of Hannibal’s elephants, but that was it. After that, Scipio’s veteran infantry sucked it up against Hannibal’s veteran infantry and would probably have been hacked into pieces without a last-minute rescue from Scipio’s cavalry. In pursuit of Hannibal’s since the beginning of the battle, they eventually realized that they were merely being led away from the battlefield, U-turned, and saved the day pulling off against the Carthaginians the same pincer tactics Hannibal had used at Cannae.

We’ll never know whether it was thanks to quick wit or sheer luck or a mix of both (also called serendipity), but it had not been by Scipio’s order that the cavalry had doubled back. Accordingly, Zama went down in history as an example of poetic justice rather than military genius.

Vegetius’ puzzling nostalgia

Vegetius’ fetish for late Republican armies is even more puzzling in view of the parallel between his time and the Cimbric War (113-101 BCE) when Rome had been fighting a war of extinction against Celtic and German invaders. Like in the Second Punic War, the legions had initially suffered a monumental defeat at Arausio (105 BCE), the greatest since Cannae. But that was it.

Unlike in the Second Punic War, novel tactics and luck contributed much less to win the Cimbric War than training. Aurusio had been the endpoint of catastrophic leadership failures and bickering about who should follow the orders of whom. Proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio had refused to join forces with Consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus because Caepio was a Patrician who would not take orders from the Plebeian Maximus (a homo novus, to boot). The Cimbri and Teutons had had an easy time cutting down one consular army at a time.

The Senate and the People of Rome eventually called upon G. Marius to end the Cimbric Terror (terror cimbricus) and he ended it at Vercellae in 101 BCE. He was a bona fide military genius but on that occasion, he won the day with textbook tactics in spite of unfavorable odds (about 1:4 according to most of the sources) thanks to the old-fashioned discipline his reforms had revived after years of slacking. Vercellae went down in history as the triumphant return of Roman military virtue after years of Roman pettiness and inspired no less than Giovanni Battista Tiepolo sometimes around 1725.

The Battle of Vercellae Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
With the context of the Cimbric War much closer to Vegetius’ time than the Second Punic War, why would Vegetius prefer the pre-Marian legions to the muli Mariani?

Well, Vegetius cuts-and-pastes borrows a lot from M. Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder, 234-149 BCE), who served as an officer during the Second Punic War, and Polybius (200-118 BCE), a Greek historian who had known Scipio Africanus and had been an advisor to P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus during the Third Punic War. Polybius was so thorough that the military formation of the late Republic went down in history as Polybian legion.

By contrast, the best accounts of the Cimbric War are due to T. Livius Patavinus, aka Livy, whose history of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita, “From the founding of the City”) was written between 27 and 9 BCE; and Plutarch, who wrote a biography of Marius (among others) sometimes after 100 CE. Writing long after the facts and having limited military experience (if any at all) Livy and Plutarch were a bit fuzzy on the military details.

Given how badly Vegetius needed details, it is not unlikely that he would have been biased towards sources that actually gave some. So, there might be nothing substantial to his preference for Polybian legions against Marian ones.

A source of frustration

We will never know for sure, but it doesn’t matter that much (what did I say about excursus?). On closer inspection, very few of Vegetius’ practical training recommendations depend specifically on the type of legion trained. He might as well have recommended the Marian organization. And in fact, he does.

Sure, Vegetius mentions pre-Marian types of troops (hastati, principes and triarii) and pre-Marian organization (the maniple). But he does not specify the training down to their equipment or their placement. He does, however, recommend to organize the army in contubernia, a distinctively Marian innovation.

Now, when it comes to training recommendations, the ERM is one of the most frustrating historical sources one could imagine. On the one hand, Vegetius describes in painstaking details seemingly random improvements, including:

  • the width and depth of trenches around army encampment (military engineers don’t know how to fortify camps anymore);
  • the weight of training weapons (today’s recruits are a bunch of slackers who don’t know how to train hard anymore);
  • the length, pace, and frequency of marches and the load that should be carried (go figure, the boys don’t even know how to march anymore! ).

On the other hand, Vegetius mentions only in passing things we’d really like to know more about because it’s well-known to his readers, and he’s more interested about whining about the status quo suggesting improvements. And thus, we have no details about:

  • the Roman martial art he calls armatura (it’s only taught to some troops, but everybody knows that it makes them near-invincible, so the boys should man up and learn it);
  • the legionnaires’ food rations content and weight (they are just fine, the boys just need to man up and carry a few extra);
  • the kind of armor the legionnaires are wearing (they are too light, the boys really should man up and carry heavier ones like they did in the good old days when they knew how to lay a camp, train hard, march, fight, and carry extra rations).

That leaves today’s reader with a sense of incompleteness and multiple occasions for speculation. And since Vegetius is our only source for a couple of things, the speculation can easily degenerate into endless nitpicking (I’ll give an example later). Still, Vegetius is re-hashing earlier authors and his allusions are as many Ariadne threads waiting to be pulled.

So let’s pull.

Pages from the Old Books

According to Vegetius, the training that would make the troops near invincible stands, like a stool, on three legs: loaded marches; armatura, a kind of Roman MMA (with weapons); and castrametation, the art of making and breaking camp.

Unfortunately, Vegetius is rather inconsistent with the level of details he provides about all of the above. This is especially frustrating when he assumes a common ground with the reader that is now long lost (armatura is a case in point). Also, Vegetius is no stranger to hyperbole. Given the need for a pep talk at the time (cf. Making Rome Great Again) it’s understandable, but we may want to get a more level-headed view.

Vegetius seems to be genuinely caught up in his own argument. Then again, he may be trying to bullshit his way into a position of military advisor. Personally, I’d lean toward the former, but I’m no historian, so I’d understand if you don’t care a rat’s ass for my opinion.

By I have my reasons, and you might find them more interesting. The tougher nut to crack is that armatura thing, so let’s begin with that. Then we can actually lump together loaded marches and castrametation and finally look at training periodization (and yes, that’s the word that applies).


Vegetius uses the term armatura in two distinct but related ways. In order of appearance, the first denotes a special drill (ERM, Book I, §4) that he regrets to be taught to some specific units which he calls armaturae, the second use (Book I, §13).

13. Recruits should be taught armatura. Further, the recruit should be taught the type of drill known as armatura, handed down by drillmaster. This practice even partly survives. For it is well-known that even now armaturae fight better than the rest in all battles. Hence it should be appreciated how much better is a trained soldier than an untrained, when armaturae, whatever their proficiency, outstrip the rest of their comrades in the art of warfare. The discipline of training was so strictly maintained by our ancestors that weapons instructors’ were rewarded with double pay, and soldiers inadequately proficient in this mock-battle were forced to accept barley instead of corn. Wheaten rations were not restored to them until they had shown, by giving demonstrations in front of the Prefect of the legion, tribunes and senior officers, that they had completed all that was contained in the military art.[2]

Vegetius’ second use might be the result of a confusion with the phrases armatura levis and armatura gravis which mean (respectively) “lightly armed [units]” and “heavily armed [units]” and has nothing to do with them being taught a special drill. As for the first use, the notion of armatura as a special martial art drill only appears in late-Roman sources.[3]

A party of Roman youths actually gained possession of the lowest part of the wall by turning to the purposes of war a kind of sport which they were accustomed to practise in the circus

T. Livius Patavinus, Ab Urbe Condita, 44.9

However, he’s not making anything up either. The existence of mock-battle drills is attested long before the 4th century BCE. Albeit devoid of a particular name, mock-battles are mentioned in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (Book 44, ch. 9, 3-9), specifically in the account of the Battle of Heracleum (169 BCE), during the Third Macedonian War (172-168 BCE).

[3] A party of Roman youths actually gained possession of the lowest part of the wall, by turning to the purposes of war a kind of sport which they were accustomed to practise in the circus. [4] In those times, when the present extravagant fashion of filling the area with beasts of every kind was yet unknown, it was customary to contrive various kinds of amusements; for when one chariot race and one equestrian performer were exhibited, both the performances scarcely filled up the space of an hour. [5] Among other diversions, in the more elaborate games, about sixty young men in arms, sometimes more, used to be introduced, whose performances were partly a representation of troops going through the military exercise, and partly a display of more accurate skill than appeared in the practice of soldiers, and which approached nearer to the mode of fighting used by gladiators. [6] After performing various evolutions, they formed in a square body with their shields raised over their heads, and closed together, the foremost standing upright, the next stooping a little, the third and fourth lines more and more, and so on, until the hindmost rested on their knees, thus composing a covering in the shape of a tortoise-shell, and sloping, like the roof of a house. [7] Then two armed men, who stood at the distance of about fifty feet, ran forward, and after some menacing flourishes of their arms, mounted over the closed shields, from the bottom to the top of this roof; and, treading as steadily as if on solid ground, sometimes paraded along the extreme edges of it, as if repelling an enemy, and sometimes encountered each other on the middle of it. [8] A body similar to this was brought up against the lowest part of the wall, and the soldiers, standing thereon, mounted until they were as high as the defendants on the battlements; and these having been beaten off, the soldiers of two companies climbed over into the town.[4]

Below is a quite spectacular execution of the maneuver described by Livy, by the (modern) Legio XXI Rapax, the finest reenactment group in Europe, from whom l borrowed the illustrations for this post (see also Special Thanks).

Livy may not be the most trustworthy source for military matters, but it’s unlikely that he would make that much up. This indicates that martial arts drills were a semi-institutional practice long before the Marian reforms and that public displays were as a popular form of entertainment (albeit prior to main events). That same appreciation transpires in late-Roman sources calling this practice armatura. [3]

Vegetius’ recommendation to train soldiers at posts with heavier weapons and shields is more problematic. Training at the post was common among gladiators but Vegetius is one of the few mentioning double-weight implements. The topic would deserve a post of its own (pun intended) due to the amount of hypothesizing it has spurred in the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) community (see here and here for a summary of arguments and counterarguments, cf. also Concluding Remarks)).

As valuable and informed as these opinions are, it’s only fair to say that they reflect a rather narrow understanding of training theory, both ancient and modern. Again, the topic deserves a discussion of its own but I’ll give some pointers in conclusion.

Legio XXI Rapax training at the post (used with permission)

Loaded Marches & Castrametation

Forget the lack of details about armatura in other sources than a few other late Romans: with marches and camp-building we are spoiled for choice. My favorite passage from Vegetius is not about marches per se, but about mutinies, because it re-hashes an episode from Gaius Sallustius Crispus (aka Sallust) of the utmost interest. Let’s look at Vegetius first.

4. Measures needed to ensure that soldiers do not mutiny. An army gathered together from different places occasionally raises a riot and, when in fact it is unwilling to fight, it pretends to be angry at not being led out to battle. (…) A compound treatment is usually applied to this wound. While they are still separate and in their base, [soldiers] should be held to every article of discipline by the strictest severity of tribunes, vicarii [acting tribune] and officers, and observe nothing but loyalty and obedience. They should be doing campicursio, as they themselves term a review of arms, constantly, they should have opportunity for no leave of absence, they should continually be obeying the muster and be present at the standards, and be kept as frequently as possible shooting arrows; throwing javelins, throwing stones with the sling or by hand; performing the gestures of the arrnatura, fencing with foils made to imitate swords with the point and with the edge for most of the day until they are exhausted. They should furthermore be trained at leaping over fosses by running and jumping. If the sea or a river is near their base, in summer they should all be made to swim, also to fell trees; march through thickets and broken country, hew timber, open a fosse, occupy some point, and strive with shields mutually opposed not to be dislodged by their comrades. Soldiers who have been so trained and exercised at their base, whether they are legionaries, auxilia or cavalry, when they come together for a campaign from their various units inevitably prefer warfare to leisure in the rivalry for valour. No one thinks of mutiny, when he carries confidence in his skill and strength.[5]

He received command of an army without skill nor will, unable to withstand danger or fatigue, quicker of tongue than of sword-hand, predator to our friend but prey to our enemy, with no regard for discipline. The new general was then more disturbed by the loose morals of the men than uplifted by their numbers.

G. Sallustius Cripus, De Bello Jugurthino, 44

This passage is most likely inspired by Sallust’s account of the how Proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus dealt with the legions he had found in total disarray upon his arrival in Numidia in early 108 BCE (De Bello Jugurthino, 44-45). Sallust’s description of the troops is a litany of moral turpitude relying on slaves to carry equipment, sending them to pillage the countryside and exchange the loot for wine, and even selling the daily grain allowance to buy ready-made bread (you can read it here in English, and here in the Latin). Metellus thus postponed his military campaign against Jugurtha to whip the troops back into moral and physical shape.

[Metellus’] first measure was to remove incentives to idleness, by a general order that no one should sell bread, or any other dressed provisions, in the camp; that no sutlers should follow the army; and that no common soldier should have a servant, or beast of burden, either in a camp or on a march. He made the strictest regulations, too, with regard to other things. He moved his camp daily, exercising the soldiers by marches across the country; he fortified it with a rampart and a trench, exactly as if the enemy had been at hand; he placed numerous sentinels by night, and went the rounds with his officers; and, when the army was on the march, he would be at one time in the front, at another in the rear, and at another in the center, to see that none quitted their ranks, that the men kept close to their standards, and that every soldier carried his provisions and his arms. Thus by preventing rather than punishing irregularities, he in a short time rendered his army effective.[6]

We can take Sallust’s account as a faithful depiction of the routine of a Roman army on the move in hostile territory. Then, marching under arms and building the camp would have been a daily activity, providing plenty of physical training. Sallust does not belabor on weapon training but I’ll cover that under ‘Periodization’. Now, let’s see just how good Metellus’ regimen was, shall we?

A few months later, Metellus’ army was surprised by Jugurtha near the Muthul river (chap. 48-54 of the De Bello Jugurthino). In the canned heat, with no water, Metellus’ men fought a disorganized, every-man-for-himself battle against superior numbers, for the best part of a day. Late in the afternoon, Metellus managed to rally his men, reform the lines and, eventually reinforced by his lieutenant-general Publius Rutilius Rufus, drove the Numidians off the battlefield.

P. Rutilius Rufus, mind you, had been sent in vanguard that very morning to set camp on the banks of the Muthul, only to be ambushed by a Numidian party lead by Bomilcar (Jugurtha’s second-in-command, no less) and 44 elephants. After routing out Bomilcar, capturing 4 elephants and killing the rest, P. Rutilus Rufus had set camp, realized that Metellus was late, noticed the dust cloud of the battle, and ordered his men to march to Metellus’ rescue. And nobody had complained.

Not bad for an army which a few months earlier had been “without skill nor will, unable to withstand danger or fatigue” and on the verge of mutiny.

Now, the story also has a flip side. G. Marius had missed a chance to run for office in 108 BCE to follow his patron Q. Caecilius Metellus in Numidia. But getting the troops back into shape forced Metellus to back off of an electoral promise to swiftly deal with Jugurtha. In 107 BCE, Marius obtained from Metellus permission to leave and run for consul, and back in Latium made the same promise as his patron, spreading the rumor that Metellus was dragging the operations to line his pockets with loot on purpose. The rest, as they say, is history.

Still, I cannot help but think that the muli mariani are not-so-distant cousins to the muli metellini numidici.

Muli Mariani, not-so-distant relatives of Muli Metellini Numidici. (Picture: Legio XXI Rapax on the move, used with permission).


Sallust does not say much about weapon training for an army on the move, but we can find some indications in Livy’s account of the aftermath of the battle of New Carthage in 209 BCE in southern Spain, then a Carthaginian dominion (Ab Urbe Condita, Book 26, chap. 51). P. Cornelius Scipio (not yet Africanus and still in Hispania) has just taken the city by surprise in less than a day and is about to move against Mago and Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s younger brothers.

[3] [Scipio] himself spent the few days during which he had decided to remain at [New] Carthage in drilling his naval and land forces. [4] On the first day the legions would run under arms for four miles; on the second they were ordered to take care of their arms and clean them in front of their tents; on the third day with wooden foils they encountered each other after the manner of a regular battle and hurled missile weapons provided with a button at the end; on the fourth day they were given a rest; on the fifth they again ran quickly under arms. [5] This disposition of work and rest they maintained so long as they remained at [New] Carthage. [6] The oarsmen and marines, when the sea was calm, would sail out into open water and test the mobility of their ships in sham naval battles. [7] Such training outside the city by land and sea steeled both bodies and minds for war.[7]

So, according to Livy, Scipio’s troops followed a 4-day periodized training, with 1 day of forced march (the latin says “legiones in armis quattuor milium spatio decurrerunt” where decurrere may mean “run” or “hasten”), 1 day of weapon training, and 2 days of rest, one of them dedicated to taking care of their weapons. Both rest days were probably fairly high on the MET scale (if for no other reasons than the daily chores of carrying water, firewood, fodder, etc.). This periodization scheme was well-known at the time and referred to by its Greek name, the tetrad.

We take the tetrad system to be a circle of four days, where the athlete does different things on different days. One of the days prepares the athlete, the next makes him exert himself, the next relaxes him, and the next keeps him on a middle path.

Philostratus, Gymnasticus, 48

Our main source about the tetrad is the Gymnasticus written by the Greek sophist Philostratus around 220 CE. I complained about Vegetius being sometimes unreliable, but don’t get me started with Philostratus: modern scholarship is still on the fence as to whether the guy was a complete hack or a real genius. Fortunately, the issue is not the existence of the tetrad but about how much Philostratus is shittalking criticizing it.

Now, looking only at Livy’s account, it’s not clear which are the preparation, exertion, recovery and ‘middle’ days, but the tetrad had been adapted for the military anyway. So I’d take it that the exertion day is the day of weapon training and the marching day the ‘middle’ day, with arm-cleaning being preparation and the day of rest, recovery.

[Diaporama] Legio XXI Rapax March, cleaning weapons, mock battle, rest.

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Now, Livy is just one source (and not always reliable on military matters) and Vegetius’ own recommendations for frequency are different (and perhaps influenced by Philostratus’ criticism of the tetrad, who knows), so the ebbs and flows of intensity, frequency and volume of Roman military training will have to wait for another post. But it should be clear that the Romans knew their exercise science.

Concluding Remarks

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of why I’ve traced old school strength to the Romans legions. And, perhaps also, why I claimed that exercise science has been incremental since Roman antiquity. Thanks to Philostratus, we even have a date.

That’s another ok meme, I guess. But it’s also somewhat tangent to the goal of that post, which was to set the historical record straight before we could compare Roman and modern military training. So let me get back to that, will you? So far, we now firmly established the following:

  • Vegetius’ recommendations are not made up. When it comes to military fitness, Vegetius may add a hyperbole or two about armatura but draws from a variety of sources and they generally support his claims.
  • The Marian reforms systematized earlier practices. Marius took a page or two from Q. Caecilius Metellus (like having the men carry their own food) and his physical standards were inspired by the example of successful armies (Metellus’, again, and Scipio’s).
  • The Romans had a good grasp of training theory. A Greek sophist like Philostratus may have argued against the tetrad, but it had worked with Scipio’s army. Anyone can argue about heavy weapons, but chances are it worked, too.

For that thing with heavy weapons, I may go out on a limb, but I’ll stick to my guns wicker shield and training sword and contend that it was useful. Not for any of the reasons I’ve heard so far, tho, and it will have to wait until the next post in this series, Ad Optimam Valetudinem Fingendam.

(If the title sounds familiar, that’s because l had announced it as the title of this post but I changed my mind. And if you want to try and figure out the meaning, be my guest, but you’d better know some Latin because Google translate is way off with that one.)

So without further ado, I give you a taste of said next post, with a visual summary of the training regimen of the legions (Marian, or otherwise) based on Vegetius’ stool. And next time, we’ll see how to emulate this training, even if you do not own two pila, a scutum, a gladius and a pugio. That would not hurt, tho.

Special Thanks

My very special thanks to the reenactors of Legio XXI Rapax and in particular to Cezary Wyszynski, who graciously let me use the wonderful pictures from their website to illustrate this article. Check their website out, like their Facebook page, subscribe to their YouTube Channel, and follow them on Instagram. Do it. Really.


[1]^ Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science, translated and annotated by P.N. Milner, Liverpool University Press, 2nd ed. revised (1996), p. 6.

[2]^ Ibid., p. 13.

[3]^ Another source using armatura with the same meaning is Ammianus Marcellinus, who served as a soldier in the armies of Constantius II and Julian the Apostate in the 4th century took up history after his retirement. Ammianus praises Constantius II and Julian for their armatura pedestris and armatura equestris, aka their knowledge of arms on foot and on horseback. Similarly, Vegetius closes the ERM with praises to the ‘Immortal Emperor’ to which the epitome is addressed, mentioning, in particular, his known expertise in armatura (III.26).

[4]^ History of Rome by Titus Livius, trans. W.A. McDevitte (1850), Book 44, Chap. 9 retrieved from Perseus Digital Library.

[5]^ Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science, pp. 69-70.

[6]^ Sallust, The Jugurthine War, trans. Rev. J. S. Watson, M.A. (1899), Book 44 retrieved from Perseus Digital Library.

[7]^ History of Rome by Titus Livius, trans. W.A. McDevitte (1850), Book 26, Chap. 51 retrieved from Perseus Digital Library.

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