Rome was never very adept with their cavalry nor were they very prolific. Whether it was a lack of skill within the army, a few generals who set a precedent that stuck, or perhaps a general scarcity of horses, Rome never took to cavalry like other nations did. It wasn’t until the reign of Emperor Gallienus, following the crisis of the third century, when Rome’s enemies were multiplying, the empire was weakened, and her borders became porous that the first field army fully composed of cavalry was created. It was this turbulent time that the empire felt the need to create a large, fast moving, dedicated cavalry force. Prior to that, Rome was content to use cavalry in small detachments attached to legions and, depending on the century, let the cavalry be a place where the sons of nobles could earn some time in the army without taking on an abundance of risk.
As many of you know, cavalry served a number of vital roles in ancient armies. Between reconnaissance, providing a screening force for the infantry, and/or as a harassing/probing detachment a few mounted soldiers could have a significant impact on a battle. Beyond the tactical impact cavalry could have on a battlefield one should also ponder the significant limitations of ancient battlefields when compared to today. Before the internal combustion engine, the fastest you could move around on a battlefield was on the back of a horse. Think about that for a second or two. Even in the era of the Napoleonic Wars the fastest a man could move on a battlefield was on the back of a horse. I bring all this up to drive home the significance of cavalry in the ancient world. Given all these facts and concepts perhaps you are scratching your head and wondering why Rome didn’t give cavalry more attention. And while that is an excellent question I believe the answer would require a degree of nuance and explanation that would go beyond this humble article and so I will leave that question with you to research on your own, and in the meantime we will move to the articles main point.
Some of you may be asking, “What is all this talk of horses, the title of the article speaks of light infantry?” Well you are quite right, but I only bring up the points about cavalry to create a degree of contrast. As mentioned above, Rome, up until the Late Imperial/Byzantine Era, refrained from using large detachments of cavalry in their armies. Rome chose instead to develop the legions and their famed Legionnaires, their heavy infantry and backbone of the legions. While the Heavy Infantry typically gets most of the attention, we should take some time to discuss the importance of the light infantry in the armies of Caesar, or as they were known to the Romans, the Velites!
Figure 1: An artist’s interpretation of a Roman Velite in Caesar’s Army.
With limited amounts of cavalry in the legions the Roman Velite ended up filling several of the roles that cavalry typically filled. Velites could serve as light skirmishing troops that would harass the enemy before battle and/or as a screening force to cover the retreat of beaten legions (if needed). They could also provide a limited amount of reconnaissance, though this was typically left to the small cavalry detachment assigned to each legion.
Let’s now turn to my growing miniature legion. With their iconic wolf pets, the Viletes should be a unit that stands out on the table. But despite their standing out I don’t expect that the Velite’s in my budding legion will make any significant impact on any of my upcoming ancient battles. Their most important job will be covering my line of legionaries. And they shall serve in the noble role of being a suitable roadblock to my more valuable units. So, without further ado here are some work-in-progress shots of my Roman Light Infantry. As with my previous article concerning my Legion, these wonderful miniatures were provided by Baccus 6mm.
Figure 2 & 3: Like my legionaries I start with a base coat of black paint followed by hitting the base with brown. Following that I decided to use a gray and another shade of brown for the pelts that the velites are wearing.
Figure 4 & 5: From there I move onto hitting the cloth of the infantry with a bit of off white.
Figure 6 & 7: With the cloth painted, now it is time to put on the flesh tone.
Figure 8: In this step I took some time to touch up some sloppy painting and to get the spears and the gladii at their hips painted.
Figure 9 & 10: Finally I hit the shields with the classic red of the Romans, and I perform some final touch up before the wash.
Figure 11 & 12: And at last the wash. All told, 48 men. Start to finish; less than two hours.
Figure 13: An in progress shot of my legion. The Roman Scorpions/Bolt Throwers were recently completed.
And there we have it. Another update for the legion!
Until we meet again, happy hobbying and Carthago delenda est.