Training Miles Gloriosus
Surprisingly, there is no evidence that during the Republic, the Romans provided systematic “basic training” for recruits. To be sure, younger men were often incorporated in new legions not intended for immediate active service, but just as often newly raised legions were sent into the field. In the early Republic a young man was trained in arms by his father or another close relative, quite reasonable given that they’d all go off to war together. This seems to have continued for a long time, though by the end of the third century B.C. it seems to have passed; Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.) was considered unusual in that he trained his son to fight with a sword in armor, to throw the pilum, to box, to ride a horse, to swim, and more. There is evidence that some aristocratic families provided for their sons by having them trained by noted soldiers, sometimes even men of high rank, or by distinguished retired gladiators. But by the first century B.C. recruits began to be trained en masse by the army. New legions would be raised each year at Rome, and spend a year in training before being shipped aboard. And training was often provided by some of the finest warriors around; we are told that in his old age the great Gaius Marius, overweight though he was, was still fit enough to put in an occasional afternoon instructing the young men in combat drill on the Campus Martius, and during the civil war with Caesar, Pompey the Great, though in his 50s, also took a turn at personally instructing raw recruits.
The earliest documented instance of actual organized “basic training” dates from 210 B.C. Having received a large infusion of raw recruits following his capture of New Carthage [Cartagena] in Spain, Publius Cornelius Scipio, later known as Scipio Africanus, established an intensive training schedule for them
- Day 1 Running in armor for 30 stades (c. four Roman miles, roughly 3.7 English miles or 5.9 kilometers).
- Day 2 Fatigue duties, including care and maintenance of arms and equipment, and so forth,
- Day 3 Combat drill and a sham battle using overweight blunted wooden swords covered with leather and blunted javelins.
- Day 4 Rest
Each day, Scipio personally conducted an inspection of the troops, taking pains to insure that everyone was properly outfitted. On the fifth day, the troops began again. Each new iteration of the training cycle was more difficult than the previous. Thus, where on the very first day the troops had to run in armor for four Roman miles, but on Day 5, this was supposedly doubled to eight, roughly 7.4 miles or 11.8 kilometers, while on Day 6 they began to learn how prepare the daily legionary marching camp, and on Day 7, a sham battle was fought with heavier blunted arms.
Scipio had the troops carry on this regime for some weeks, each cycle’s training schedule being a little more onerous than the previous one. Thus, he insured that his troops were perfectly disciplined and physically inured to the hardships of campaigning, being able to easily march at least 20 Roman miles, fight a major battle, and then build their nightly entrenched camp, all in one day.
The Night the War Ended
Although a pacifist, during World War II, Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979), a promising young novelist, decided to do his bit to defeat Hitler. Being an avid yachtsman, he promptly joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
Commissioned a sub-lieutenant, Monsarrat saw service in corvettes during the most desperate days of the Battle of the Atlantic. Proving a capable officer, he was promoted with unusual speed for a temporary reservist. By war’s end, having commanded successively a corvette, a frigate, and an escort group, and helped conduct numerous convoys across the ocean, he had risen to captain, and was serving on the staff of the Admiralty in London.
With the formal surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, a carnival atmosphere quickly developed in London. By chance, Monsarrat was the Duty Captain in the Admiralty that night, assigned to stand watch in the command center. He arrived at the Admiralty at 9:00 p.m., by which time perhaps a million happy people were crowded into central London. From his post, Monsarrat could hear the cheers and singing of the crowds outside the historic Admiralty building, which had seen many a similar crowd celebrating Britain’s victories since it had been completed in 1726. As he would later write, “On a guilty impulse I deserted my post” to take in the scene. He made his way to the top of the great stone arch which marks the formal entrance to the Admiralty.
From the top of Admiralty Arch, Monsarrat could see an enormous host of people cheering and singing, from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square and, most astonishing of all, a city in lights for the first time since blackouts had begun, nearly six years earlier.
But then he noticed something else, which he described in his memoirs.
Then, on a half-turn, I became aware that I was not alone, on top of the Admiralty Arch.
There was someone standing within five yards of me, also staring down at the crowds, and oblivious of close company for the same reason as I had been—because we were both entranced by the magnet of what was going on below. With that perceptible twinge of nervousness which had been built into my life for so many years, I recognized, first the rank and then the man.
The massive display of gold braid told me that he was an admiral, like his brave and lonely brother on top of the column [Nelson]. Then I realized that this was a very superior admiral indeed. I counted one thick band of gold, and four thinner ones. He was an Admiral of the Fleet-the highest any sailor could go.
In fact, I suddenly recognized, he was the Admiral of the Fleet. The man in my company was the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Cunningham.
Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, Bt, KT, GCB, OM, DSO (1883-1964), the most distinguished British sea-dog since Nelson, had joined the Navy at 15 in 1898, and been in the service for 47 years, seeing action in destroyers during World War I, at Gallipoli, on the Dover Patrol, and elsewhere, and then risen steadily in the years of peace, and then, during the first half of World War II had put in a masterful performance as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, before being named First Sea Lord.
Monsarrat took his discharge from the Royal Navy in 1946, For some years he served in the diplomatic corps, but then retired to become a full-time writer, and produced a steady stream of novels and short stories, most notably the brilliant The Cruel Sea, many of them based on his experiences in the war.
Note: Nicholas Monsarrat’s memoirs, published in the U.S. in one volume, BREAKING IN- BREAKING OUT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY BY NICHOLAS MONSARRAT
(New York: Morrow, 1971) has a detailed account of his wartime service. Much of this experience was used in his best novel, which remains in print, The Cruel Sea
(Springfield, N.J.: Burford Books, 2000), which was made into a superior film in 1953, The Cruel Sea
, starring Jack Hawkins. In addition, Bernard Edwards’ The Cruel Sea Retold: The Truth Behind Monsarrat's Epic Convoy Drama
provides an excellent look at the events upon which Monsarrat based the novel.