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What have the Romans ever done for us?

30 May 2018
What have the Romans ever done for us?

All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?- Life of Brian

When thinking about future problems, there is always the chance that somebody in the past has experienced a similar situation and written about it. The Australian Army finds itself somewhat sympathetic to the Roman Army in that it needs to innovate in order to maintain an acceptable level of effectiveness. Although distant, the Romans might have lessons that are relevant to a modern Australian Army, but why the Roman Army and not the Greeks or Persians? While it could be argued that all of these civilisations, ancient and contemporary, rose and fell on the strength of their ability to innovate; for this blog I will focus on the Romans.

The Romans were at the forefront of those who pushed the scope of progressive technologies and deep tactical developments which directly affected their battlefield effectiveness. Or simply put, the Romans displayed the ability to innovate and adapt the existing in order to fulfil future needs. If it worked, it was used and improved. One example is Roman ‘artillery’. From a few early models of ballista taken from Greek city-states, the Romans adopted and improved their design, and eventually issued one to every century in the legions allowing them to engage in ‘shock and awe’ tactics. 

In order to achieve this kind of forward thinking, the Roman Army first had to engage in critical introspection in order to see its own shortfalls. That it chose to do so is demonstrated in the restructures undertaken. The Romans realised that for an army to be prepared for every contingency, the ability to train or retrain soldiers to meet different tasks took time and was expensive. To circumvent this problem the Romans looked at the capabilities afforded by using auxiliary troops drawn from conquered or client states of Rome into its ranks. The use of these auxiliaries allowed Roman Generals and other strategic thinkers, access to a far broader range of skills than Rome previously held, or more importantly, could produce quickly enough to be effective. A good example was an engagement between German barbarians, and Roman legionaries with their Batavian auxiliaries. The Roman legionaries struggled with the flooded terrain of the battle field, whereas the Batavian auxiliaries were used to swimming and dealing with water logged terrains giving the Romans a much needed tactical advantage. To give a contemporary example, the Australian Army compared to broader industry or partner armies, demonstrates an obvious lag in many aspects of cyber capability. By drawing upon lessons from Rome it might be argued that a worthwhile option for Army might be to look to supplement its own organic cyber forces with civilian cyber experts and create a modern equivalent of the old Roman Batavian Auxiliary, creating a non-uniformed Cyber Reserve Unit from members who are already adept in the cyber world.

The Romans also knew enough history to be aware of the widespread technological change which had brought benefits in the past. This tradition continued as the empire grew in size and absorbed new ideas. Romans thought of themselves as practical, so constant small-scale innovation was common (such as the development of the ballista into the polybolos or repeating ballista). By encouraging lateral thinking, the Roman Army sought to give itself a competitive edge with its military hardware, so that while the Romans cannot be considered great inventors, their ability to ask ‘what if?’ allowed them to adapt quickly and improve already existing technologies
As the Australian Army moves forward, there will become an increasing need to ensure that allocated funds are spent prudently. This may require the Australian Army to at least consider adopting an adaptive approach to hardware, in the same way companies like Apple use adaptive thinking. Apple did not create music downloads or the electronic tablets which predated iPads by a decade. On the contrary, Apple was able to identify existing concepts and develop them in ways that had not been done before.  If Army could foster lateral thinking and leverage industry innovations, it would afford itself a strategic lead time over its competitors. 

So, what have the Romans ever done for us? They often made careful records of how they resolved problems they faced in order to remain relevant in a hostile world. They thought laterally and practically about innovation. They realised quite quickly that it is often physically impossible to create a sufficiently diverse internal structure from scratch, to meet emerging threats. Depending upon how you choose to interpret their records, it can even be argued that to attempt to create such a force is undesirable, particularly when an easier option already exists. If however we decide that the Romans have no lessons to teach their modern equivalents, it is still wise to see what other non-related industries are developing and using, and to ask how these innovations might be suborned into future strategic thought processes.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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