Maniple (military unit)

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This article is about the Roman military formation. For the liturgical garment, see Maniple (vestment).

Maniple (Latin: manipulus, literally meaning "a handful") was a tactical unit of the Roman legion adopted from the Samnites during the Samnite Wars (343–290 BC). It was also the name of the military insignia carried by such unit.

Maniple members, seen as each other's brothers in arms, were called commanipulares (singular, commanipularis), but without the domestic closeness of the much smaller contubernium.

Historical origin[edit]

The manipular system was adopted at around 315 BC, during the Second Samnite War.[1] The rugged terrain of Samnium where the war was fought highlighted the lack of manoeuvrability inherent in the phalanx formation which the Romans had inherited from the Etruscans. The main battle troops of the Etruscans and Latins of this period comprised Greek-style hoplite phalanxes, inherited from the original Greek military unit, the phalanx.

After suffering a series of defeats culminating in the surrender of an entire legion without resistance at Caudine Forks the Romans abandoned the phalanx altogether, adopting the more flexible manipular system, famously referred to as "a phalanx with joints".

The manipular legion[edit]

The maniple typically consisted of 120 soldiers arrayed in 3 ranks of 40 men when engaged in battle.

For the next two hundred years (until the Marian reforms of 107 BC) the Roman army was organized into three lines: the hastati, the principes, and the triarii. These were divided by experience, with the youngest soldiers in the hastati making the first engagement. Where resistance was strong this rank would dissolve back through the Roman line and allow the more experienced soldiers in the principes to fight. In turn, the principes could yield to the hardened triarii if necessary. The latter situation led to the Roman saying "ad triarios redisse", "to fall back on the triarii", meaning that things had come to a desperate pass.

The maniples in each line generally formed with a one-maniple space between each maniple and its neighbours, and the maniples in each of the forward lines covering the gaps in the line behind, so that retreating troops of the forward lines could withdraw without disrupting those behind them. Sources disagree on the numbers involved and in all likelihood they varied considerably but a generally accepted number is 20 maniples of hastati and 20 of principes of approximately 120 men each and 20 half strength maniples of "triarii", for a total of 6,000 men.

Attached to a legion were also a number of very light skirmishers called velites armed with javelins drawn from the poorer sections of Roman society, a handful of Equestrian cavalry, auxiliaries (mostly cavalry) drawn from Rome's Italian allies (socii) and a large number of non-combatants.

Drill and fighting formations[edit]

No part of drill is more essential in action than for soldiers to keep their ranks with the greatest exactness, without opening or closing too much. Troops too much crowded can never fight as they ought, and only embarrass one another. If their order is too open and loose, they give the enemy an opportunity of penetrating. Whenever this happens and they are attacked in the rear, universal disorder and confusion are inevitable. Recruits should therefore be constantly in the field, drawn up by the roll and formed at first into a single rank. They should learn to dress in a straight line and to keep an equal and just distance between man and man. They must then be ordered to double the rank, which they must perform very quickly, and instantly cover their file leaders. In the next place, they are to double again and form four deep. And then the triangle or, as it is commonly called, the wedge, a disposition found very serviceable in action. They must be taught to form the circle or orb; for well-disciplined troops, after being broken by the enemy, have thrown themselves into this position and have thereby prevented the total rout of the army. These evolutions, often practised in the field of exercise, will be found easy in execution on actual service.

Vegetius, De Re Militari I 26

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Rome, The Samnite Wars


Primary sources
  • Primary sources for early Roman military organization include the writings of Polybius and Livy.
  • A primary source for later Roman military organization and tactics is Epitoma rei militaris (also referred to as De Re Militari), by Flavius Vegetius Renatus
Secondary sources
  • Pauly-Wissowa (German-language encyclopaedia on everything relating to Classical Antiquity)

External links[edit]