|Command of cohorts in the legions of the late Republic and Principate|
|The question was whether it was true that the legionary cohort did not have a commander, whereas an auxiliary cohort had a CO senior to and distinct from the centurions commanding the centuries. Some scholars are adamant that the legionary cohort did not have a commander, and a few would extend this on to have the centuries of a cohort operating semi-independently. This is my take on the question:|
There isn't a simple, straightforward answer to this question. As I am sure you know, understanding the Roman army is a question of trying to make sense of lots of little fragments of information. Ultimately there is a good deal that we do not know. If we are lucky, then new evidence will turn up in the form of an inscription, papyrus or writing tablet which will add something new. So there is very often no hard and fast right answer, just ways of interpreting what we have and filling in the gaps with conjecture. In this case Ross Cowan follows Speidel and quite a few other scholars. I have a great deal of respect for all of them, but in some cases have a different interpretation. Often it is impossible to prove the case one way or the other.
I haven't read that particular book, so it may be that the wording is slightly different. However, essentially it is true, but only up to a point. It is definitely a fact that we have not found the slightest evidence for a permanent post as commander of a legionary cohort. All the evidence suggests that there were 6 centurions in charge of the 6 centuries forming a cohort - but there was not an additional officer, whether centurion or someone else, clearly in charge of the others. This is in contrast to auxiliary cohorts, who had six centurions and a prefect (or in some cases tribune) who was superior in rank and social status and was the commander of the unit. Similarly praetorian cohorts and urban cohorts had tribunes as commanders as well as a centurion for each century.
The question of standards is harder. We know that each century had a signifer, but no one is recorded as being the standard bearer of the whole cohort. However, no one actually tells us that each century actually carried its standard & it is not impossible that one could carry something different, but simply wasn't given a title - like the aquilifer, the man carrying the eagle of the legion. We do not really know if there was one standard for an entire auxiliary cohort - there is evidence for several types of standard bearer within these units.
The question of a genius of a legionary cohort is also a bit murky. Legionaries most commonly set up inscriptions to the genius of their century or legion. Off the top of my head I cannot remember any to a legionary cohort, but confess that I haven't looked at this for a while. So it would be worth checking the references to genii or cohorts in case they are to praetorian or urban cohorts, or auxiliary units. All of these had a much more independent existence and were not permanently grouped into any higher unit equivalent to a legion.
Now, some scholars work on the basis that if there is not a man with a specific title associated with a specific role, then no one performed that role, and so the Roman army must have worked differently. Thus Cowan, Speidel etc minimise the role of the cohort in tactics, stressing instead the role of the maniple and century. I don't share this view, and have a different understanding of the nature of combat. On this particular issue, it's worth thinking about a few points:-
1. Quite a lot of armies do not have ranks whose title is tied to one specific role. Thus a modern platoon will usually be commanded by a first or second lieutenant, a company by a major (or less often a captain), and a battalion by a lieutenant colonel (or sometimes a major). This is normal practice and so everyone has a rough idea of what these ranks do & the scale of their responsibility. However, you will also find all of these ranks performing completely different roles in the same army. Lieutenant colonel doesn't mean battalion commander, but most battalion commander's will be lieutenant colonels and that is considered an appropriate level of responsibility for someone of that rank. So MAYBE the Romans don't need to have a rank called Legionary Cohort Commander for someone to be doing the job.
2. Cohorts are clearly very important tacitcal units, the most important sub-division in a legion's command structure. For example, when Caesar (BC 3. 89) saw the threat of the Pompeian cavalry at Pharsalus he took individual cohorts from the third line (ex tertia acie singulas cohortes detraxit) to form a line behind his own cavalry on the right. He did not take individual maniples or centuries - something that would have been much slower. Personally, I find it very difficult to believe purely on practical grounds that the cohort was a tactical unit, but did not have someone to command it. If it had a commander then the legionary legate or army commander then has to send an order to one man to make the unit move. If each maniple was semi-independent then he would have to tell three people - six if each century was independent - before it could begin to move. If the unit marched in formation - or even in relation to its constituent centuries - then it needed to take the lead and the instruction off someone. So, if there was no clearly distinct post/title of commander of a legionary cohort, the behaviour and tactical usage strongly suggests that someone told them what to do.
3. Legionary centurions - we know that there were different titles for these and that a man could be promoted from one grade to a higher one - Caesar talks about this a lot. At the very least this shows that they differed in prestige/seniority. Hence the hastatus prior, princeps posterior etc. Given the frequency of such promotions it is very hard to believe that everyone in cohorts 2 to 10 were of the same rank/grade and that the only promotion was to the first cohort. Why have these distinctions if they did not really make a difference? It is a mistake to think of centurion as a rank - really it was grade, more like modern ideas of officers, warrant officers etc, each of which contains a range of different ranks and responsibilities. As an aside, Polybius 6. 24. 6-9 which talks of the selection and qualities of centurions, notes that when both centurions of a two century maniple were present, then the one first appointed held command of the maniple as a whole. So the idea of one centurion commanding another was not alien to the Romans.
4. By far the most likely interpretation is that one of the six centurions in a legionary cohort acted as its overall commander. Presumably this man was clearly senior to the others - and a hierarchy existed so that if he was absent or became a casualty, then everyone would know who would then be in charge. Perhaps the senior man was the pilus prior, commander of the senior century of the cohort - on the other hand maybe they worked on individual length of service so that the most experienced man was in charge. To me this seems both logical and effective. Legionary cohorts did not play a major role in administration, and less often operated indepently of the legion than say praetorians or auxiliaries and so the legionary cohort had less need of a full time staff and commander.
5. An objection to this would be to ask who commanded the century of the centurion acting as cohort commander? The optio would seem an obvious candidate. Their next step in promotion was to the centurionate, so it would be logical enough as preparation for this to let one of them effectively run a century on behalf of its centurion while the latter led the cohort. It was common in seventeenth and early eighteenth century European armies for the Lt. Col. and Major to have their own companies, while still acting as CO and 2iC of the regiment. (However, this point is a little circular, since these armies were inspired by interpretations of classical texts. On the other for a hundred years or more such a system seemed to work).
6. Standards. In the seventeenth century each company of a regiment had its standard - and for a long time after this stopped the British army kept a name called an ensign or standard bearer in every company even though the battalion only carried 2 standards. So just because a signifer has that title does not mean that every century still had a standard - ir if it possessed it, that all were carried in battle. If they were, then although it is quite possible that each signum was kept with its own century, it is equally possible that they were grouped together to mark the centre of the cohort. That's pure conjecture, but it is worth considering the possibility. Signa is often used as shorthand in battle accounts for formation/the position of the fighting line or a formed body of troops. So it clearly was though of as a good way of seeing where units were. The Tacitus passage does suggest that there was something that could physically be placed to symbolise each legionary cohort. Harder to know whether than means one standard for everyone or more than that - i.e. up to six standards from the centuries, but clearly showing their corporate identity.
So, for me, the best guess is that the most centurion commanded each legionary cohort. He just did not get a title that says that this is what he did. I reckon the evidence points clearly in this direction, but freely admit that this is all a long way from proof. On the other hand, it certainly can't be disproved either.
Hope this helps. I talk about this a bit in The Roman Army at War and to be honest haven't fundamentally changed my view since then.
|My apologies for the long weeks of silence. I have been very busy working on the biography of Augustus - and checking proofs of All in Scarlet Uniform for its release in August - and so the time has slipped by. Augustus is making good progress and I am pleased with the result and looking forward to finishing and having a bit more free time. For the moment, I thought that I would post an answer to a question sent to the website as a separate blog entry|
|Writing Historical novels|
|Well, 2013 starting slowly and am well behind in terms of updating this site. However, I wanted to post a message about this new blog run by The Australian Literature Review and designed to give advice about writing historical novels. They have about thirty authors and editors contributing a blog entry each month. Here is the link to my first one Starting to write historical novels and it is easy from this to navigate the rest of the site. I have read the entries so far and reckon they are very useful, so would recommend them to anyone contemplating writing or simply interested in how authors go about things.|
|The Waterloo Archive Volume IV|
Back in June I posted an entry about the third volume of Gareth Glover's The Waterloo Archive and just recently I have had a chance to read the fourth volume. Once again it provides an incredible amount of new information for Quatre Bras and Waterloo, as well as the wider campaign and the occupation of Paris. As always, there are lots of snippets adding new details to our understanding of the battle, emphasising how much of the often repeated orthodox view of Waterloo itself is grossly distorted. It has always struck me that personal accounts do not neatly fit the phases imposed on the battle. These sources add to that impression, but also challenge many other aspects of the traditional narrative.
Well, one day I hope to take the 106th to Waterloo and I suspect that many of these details will influence how I write about the battle. For the moment, my interest is particularly drawn to all the little details adding flavour to the life of officers and soldiers in that era. Included in this volume is a previously unpublished account by Simmons, whose journal was edited by Verner at the end of the nineteenth century and has become one of the classic accounts of the era. This 'new' narrative is just as lively and full of anecdote as his earlier, briefer account.
Also very welcome are the accounts by two of Lord Hill's staff, and especially the diary of Captain Digby Mackworth of the 7th Fusiliers, for a reminder of the general's role in this campaign, which sometimes gets forgotten given the way Wellington broke up the corps. Interestingly he speaks of a tearful Duchess of Richmond 'placing herself at the entrance of the hall room ... ' and vainly begging her guests on the 15th June to ' ... "wait one little hour more" and "not spoil her ball". He also gives us a view of fashionable society and it is hard not to smile at comments such as 'There must have been something essentially bad in the education of the Wellesley family: on the score of gallantry not one of its members, male or female, is sans reproche' or 'The 54th are commanded by Lord Waldegrave, who has greatly distressed his family by a very imprudent marriage. Many people think the marriage has not actually taken place, though he introduces her everywhere as Lady Waldegrave.' The editor notes that in fact the couple did not marry until October 1815. This sort of detail, about such private matters as well as technical military matters raise these books to true works of scholarship and provoke nothing but admiration for Gareth Glover's knowledge and the immense amount of time devoted to producing this series and his other books.
Some of the contents are very poignant even after two centuries - such as a surgeon's comments on men wounded in the battle. For instance a Private William Wanstell of the 10th Hussars whose memory was affected by a head wound, so that he could not remember recent events, but only earlier service in the 17th LD. Wanstell died a few days later. There are also some lively last letters home from Ensign the Hon. S. Barrington of the 2nd/1st Guards who was subsequently killed at Quatre Bras. This is followed by several letters to his family written after the campaign, providing them with more information about his final hours and emphasising that his death was 'instantaneous owing to a musket shot in the head'. Given that that is just what friends would be likely to say in the circumstances, it is tempting to wonder whether they wrote what they thought would be most comforting to his family. On the other, hand one of the correspondents contrasts this swift end with some of his other friends lingering on with dreadful wounds, so perhaps suspicion is unjustified. Interestingly two of the letters also speak of Barrington and another officer going aside to pray before the action - something not always associated with Regency gentlemen.
There is so much material in this and the earlier volumes that I could go on and on. All in all, this is a marvellous addition to our understanding of the campaign, the army and the era in general.
|Wellington's Wars. The making of a military genius|
Huw Davies, Wellington's Wars. The making of a military genius (Yale University Press, 2012) is certainly well worth a look for anyone with an interest in the subject. I enjoyed reading it and found it thought-provoking, although at the same time it is rather frustrating, and could have benefitted from being much longer and broadening the discussion. So when reading about the lessons the young Wellesley learned in India, it would have been nice to compare these campaigns to earlier wars fought by the East India Company's armies. Given that the author argues for similarities between his methods in India and in the Peninsula this would be all the more interesting to see whether his operations in the former conformed to normal practice there. The treatment of the Peninsular War is interesting and offers fresh insights, although the focus is sometimes a little narrow. His tactical ability is largely taken as already well established and so dealt with very briefly indeed. The early campaigns, especially those of 1809 also receive little attention, an appear more as a prelude to the clearly defensive strategy of the next few years. Given how far into Spain Talavera was fought, this seems an over simplification.
It's unfair to criticise a good book for not being even better, but it is a mark of the author's interesting ideas that you are left wanting to consider them in a wider framework, and find that at the moment the discussion stops before it is fully convincing. The preface offers a good example of rather cavalier pronouncements. It tells the story of Wellington sitting for a portrait by Lawrence, and being dismayed to see that the artist depicted him holding a pocket watch in his hand - the idea was to suggest him waiting for the arrival of Blucher's Prussians. Wellington was horrified, and the chastened artist instead changed the watch to a telescope for the finished portrait. This the author says:
' ... speaks volumes not only about the Waterloo Campaign, but also about Wellington's character. ... "That will never do!" the Duke is alleged to have exclaimed. "I was not 'waiting' for the Prussians at Waterloo." ... Clearly Wellington came to believe that the arrival of the Prussians played little part in his victory over Napoleon.'
Yet we are talking about a picture honouring the subject, where a degree of egoism is surely natural. Who would want to be depicted at the moment of a great achievement as entirely dependent on someone else? The story does not in itself tell us much at all about Wellington's view on the overall importance of his own or of Blucher's role in the hundred Days, merely that he understandably wanted a portrait of himself to focus on his own achievement. The Duke's views on Waterloo are another matter altogether, and not adequately explored, especially to justify such sweeping statements. So we come back to the start of this post. Davies' book is well worth reading. It will make you think afresh about some big issues and that is a rare thing in such a well-trodden subject. At times it can also be more than a little frustrating.
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