Scouting and Ambush

I haven’t heard any complaints about Roman Legion discussions here, so I’ll continue to devote a few electrons to the topic.

All military operations require knowledge before action. General Robert E. Lee’s disastrous experience at Gettysburg is often laid at the feet of General JEB Stuart, who was not keeping in contact with Union forces and sending reports back to Lee. As a result, Lee’s entire army was infantry (and artillery), marching blind, in enemy territory. The Roman army did not do that.

The Teutoburg Forest

The Varian (9 BC) Massacre at the Teutoburg Forest stands out to us as an example of what might have been three Roman Legions (and auxiliaries) being massacred because of faulty scouting, but a closer examination of the facts show that was not the case.

An alliance of Germanic tribes ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions and their auxiliaries, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus. The alliance was led by Arminius, a Germanic officer of Varus’s auxilia. Arminius had acquired Roman citizenship and had received a Roman military education, which enabled him to deceive the Roman commander methodically and anticipate the Roman army’s tactical responses. The enemy, in this case, was doing the scouting for the legion.

Roman Army Practices

Operational and strategic reconnaissance was done by Speculatores, who were essentially spies sent deep into enemy territory, often under the guise of merchants and the like, who provided in depth intelligence on enemy strength, supplies, vulnerabilities, town/city defenses, even politics. The surveyed in much the same way as Kipling laid out in “Kim” during the Great Game, by using cyphers and other clandestine methodology. In that way, when a Speculatore would be detained and searched, there were not volumes of written maps.

Tactical level reconnaissance was done with patrols sent some miles ahead of the main body by dedicated scouts on horseback called Exploratores, who looked for presence of enemy forces, conducted route selection, looked for bridges or fording sites, etc.

Basic scouting and screening of an army on the march or in camp would be done with elements of their cavalry, usually the light cavalry, as well as sometimes using light infantry if the terrain suited them, who would act as the vanguard, rear guard, and occasionally flankers. They would not only be looking for hidden enemy but also verifying routes and crossing sites provided by the Exploratores (whose info was used to plan overall marching routes and campaign plans), they’d look for marching camp sites, water sources, foraging sites, etc.

Too expensive on-line but you can find them used book stores:

Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods but Verify (Studies in Intelligence) by Rose Mary Sheldon

Exploratio: Military & Political Intelligence in the Roman World from the Second Punic War to the Battle of Adrianople Austin and Rankov


  1. I wonder just who would complain about these. I, for one, find them most interesting. My education is ongoing and I intend to continue it until I’m no longer able. Keep these coming.

  2. I love history and in school back in the 60’s, I was really into world civ and early history. Fascinated by both Rome and Greece.

    Kudos on thses snippets.

  3. This is really good stuff…when men were real and the whiny weak were quickly removed from the gene pool. The pictures are incredible, evoking the fear of God just by the sight. Might have to watch Gladiator again tonight, gather a visual little testosterone.

    • The gene pool is definitely in need of some bleach. Historically the bun-boys and pajama boys did serve a use. Cannon fodder. March them forward and let the enemy expend arrows (later cannon balls) into their formation. If they turn and run, their own army cuts them down.

  4. Anything that touches on this type of information is interesting and most welcome. The learning continues in the comments which is great for those of us who aspire to be a “life long learner”. Which I’m guessing includes most who come to your site.

  5. The Varian massacre was bad.

    But so was the defeat of Marcus Linneus Crassus by the Parthians in 53BC. Which led to Roman prisoner-soldiers being sent to fight the proto-Chinese in the area of Liqian in now Western China.

    Crassus was… an ass. Oh, let’s burn our supply boats in order to ensure our soldiers fight really hard, dur-hur…

    • Crassus got what was coming to him. They poured molten gold down his throat. So much for the triumverate. It became a biumverate (is that a word?).

  6. So, people are complaining, murmuring. I’d have thought that a dangerous pursuit and you might remind them of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Or the fate of Vercingetorix.

    The Varus thing was a disaster, but didn’t they get the Standards back?

  7. Ever since the The Varian (9 BC) Massacre at the Teutoburg Forest, the powers that be In Rome, have not forgotten or forgiven the Germanic peoples, and are still trying to destroy them!

  8. I vaguely remember the only standards lost and never recovered was in Judea , but they were ultimately destroyed.

  9. I went to the Teutoburgervalrd back in the 80s , saw Arminius (Herman’s) dinkmal. Huge ass bronze statue, I don’t know maybe 40ft plus. Locally known as Herman the German . Very impressive . The locals proudly brag , Herman is the reason they don’t speak Latin.

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