Marines vs. Roman Army: Could the Devil Dogs Win?

Marines vs. Roman Army: Could the Devil Dogs Win?

Could a single Marine Expeditionary Unit of 2,200 warriors armed with state-of-the-art firearms take down the entire 330,000-man army of the Roman Empire? For a student of military firearm history it’s an intriguing question.

Posed as a hypothetical question on the megasite, the question — Could a single Marine Expeditionary Unit of today take down the entire Roman Empire? — caught James Erwin’s attention.

Erwin, a technical writer living in Iowa, is the author of The Encyclopedia of U.S. Military Actions. After stumbling across the discussion, he began to hammer out a fictional scenario on his lunch hour. His tale (written under the handle “Prufrock451”) involves a marine unit transported back in time to 23 B.C. during the reign of Augustus Caeser. Starting with “Day 1” his lively prose sucked readers in and propelled him to instant online celebrity status virtually overnight. A Hollywood screenwriter read Erwin’s narrative. A deal was struck. And the rest, as they say, is history. The movie is currently in production.

There was no stopping the Roman Army's seemingly endless conquest for empire. But how would they contend with soldiers armed with M4 automatic rifles?
There was no stopping the Roman Army's seemingly endless conquest for empire. But how would they contend with soldiers armed with M4 automatic rifles?

Here’s how it began:

DAY 1 The 35th MEU is on the ground at Kabul, preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan. Suddenly, it vanishes.

The section of Bagram where the 35th was gathered suddenly reappears in a field outside Rome, on the west bank of the Tiber River. Without substantially prepared ground under it, the concrete begins sinking into the marshy ground and cracking. Colonel Miles Nelson orders his men to regroup near the vehicle depot – nearly all of the MEU's vehicles are still stripped for air transport. He orders all helicopters airborne, believing the MEU is trapped in an earthquake.

Nelson's men soon report a complete loss of all communications, including GPS and satellite radio. Nelson now believes something more terrible has occurred – a nuclear war and EMP which has left his unit completely isolated. Only a few men have realized that the rest of Bagram has vanished, but that will soon become apparent as the transport helos begin circling the 35th's location. – Prufrock451

Reader comments flooded in. Sub-Reddits popped up, spawning side discussions. A dedicated community called Rome, Sweet Rome, emerged. One reader observed:

There was a battle in the 17th century iirc in which 200 Moroccan troops armed with flintlock guns (supplied by Europeans) defeated an army of 20,000 Mali warriors armed with melee weapons. These were 17th century front loading muskets that weren't accurate past 50-100 meters and took a long time to reload (no cartridges).

Now what do you think 50 guys with automatic weapons are going to do to 6,000 guys with swords walking in tight formation? – gegc

Sure, there are obvious problems today’s warriors would face in ancient Rome — the lack of GPS and finite fuel and ammunition supplies in a world where replacements wouldn’t exist — problems that only Hollywood could gloss over.

But setting reality aside for just a minute, could a single Marine Expeditionary Unit of 2200 warriors armed with state-of-the-art firearms take down the entire 330,000 army of the Roman Empire? For a student of military firearm history it’s an intriguing question. Keep in mind that each deployed marine will carry over three hundred rounds of ammunition in his battle pack.

To make this interesting, instead of an entire Marine unit, what could a scout-sniper team or two do against the ancient Roman legions?

Vasily Zaytsev, the Soviet's most-famous sniper of World War II, credited with 225 confirmed kills in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Vasily Zaytsev, the Soviet's most-famous sniper of World War II, credited with 225 confirmed kills in the Battle of Stalingrad.

Consider the military marksmen as a force multiplier.  In World War II, for example, famous Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev scored 225 confirmed kills during the Battle of Stalingrad.

Zaytsev later taught a sniper class of thirty students who racked up between 1,000 and 3,000 kills (depending on source). While Zaytsev’s kill ratio of 1/225 is impressive (his disciples were batting 1/100) what really brings this into focus is the fact the German snipers were no slouches themselves — armed with Mauser k98ks. They were a formidable adversary indeed.

They were no ancient peoples wielding swords and spears.

What do you think? Could a modern-day sniper team hold back and conquer the Imperial Roman Army?  What modern firearms would play the most decisive role?

Sign in and tell me your thoughts below.


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  1. As events would prove in Neros reign, Rome is a tinderbox. Similarly, at the time there was only a legion or two in Italy. So the city could easily be put under seige. Any arriving legions could be defeated piecemeal. The tactical problem the Romans have is their dependence on close battle. Even slow-loading muzzle loading muskets are proof against stabbing weapons if given cover while reloading, say by a pikeforce or wagons (vis Boers vs. Zulus). History gives us many examples of small “european” armies beating large armies of cold-steel-armed natives, who simply were unable to close. BTW, Cortez manufactured black powder on the March in Mexico. Our boys can get sulfur from Vesuvius.

  2. I believe that the Marines will prevail but the ultimate sucess is highly dependent on how much ammo they have – of course! The distance fighting the Marines are trained for as opposed to the arms-length fighting the Romans know will immediately demoralize the Romans when they are generally unsuccessful in actually reaching the Marines before they are cut down and the Phalix (spelling?) is made useless when the Legionaires on the outside of their formations are killed by rifles/carbine/mortar fire at the beginning of agressions.

    As a former Marine I believe that of ALL the armies of antiquity the Roman Legionaires probably have the best chance of matching the Marines in combat. Not just a portion of a DoD as in “special Forces” or the Seals.

    If the Marines can take out at least half of the Romans at the onset of the confrontations, they are gonna prevail.

    I do have to acknowledge that IF the Romans actually reach the Marines enmass and are able to deploy their swords, the Marines will be pretty much hacked up! I believe the Roman sword would probably take out an M4 with ONE swack (bend the barrel, chop off “something” important, etc.)

  3. Hearts and minds. In antiquity, the line betwen divinities and regular men was often very thin. At first, the legionaries would figure the marines are demigods. This belief could be encouraged by suitable means, including remote decapitation of command and control. Mortar the legionary camp every night. In the early principiate, the legions were always ready to desert to the precieved winning side anyway. Likewise, a significant percentage of the Italian population were slaves, kept in check only by the strongest measures. Given any hope of success, these are your auxiliary forces. Break the legion’s line with stand off fire or just by running a couple armored vehicles into it and let your allies do the rest. While not necessary, your auxiliary forces could be armed with matchlock muzzle-loaders that out-range anything the Romans could carry to the field. Reintroduce the spanish tercio. BP up to flintlock rifles is easily within the scope of ancient technology. The trick is knowing it is worth doing.

  4. Come on!
    Romans were a pragmatic, flexible people…
    And astute, too!
    The even momentary confusion of the Marines would be noticed. Confused means they were stranded, now as then. Stranded belligerents can be BOUGHT!
    They’d send spies, then Emissaries, then try to bribe the COs with their weight in Gold, and a small Province, for the secret of Firearms!
    And the Marines? They would strike a deal, head for Olissipo (ancient Lisbon), and buy the sturdiest ships they could find, heading to America…

  5. Let’s look at this situation. Arms and tactics are not going to be as decisive as logistics and leadership. We can assume by the following actions that leadership is poor to mediocre at best. The assumption of an earthquake or of a nuclear detonation when we do not have telltale signs of either is a start. The thing would be to assume nothing. The commander should first determine the “ground truth”. The first thing he would notice is that Bagram is located with a mountain to its Northeast and Southeast. The terrain is scrub and the climate is arid. Those would not be apparent on the West bank of the Tiber river in 23 BC. The marshes would seem to put the MEU somewhere near Southern Rome not too far from the via del Mare. The presence of marsh land into which some concrete structures nearby but not the vehicle park/motor pool or the Marston matting for the air assets suggests that they are either closer to the via Magliano placing the unit somewhere between the via Magliano to the West and the via del Mare to the East and Southeast. The absence of radio signals from the retrans stations on either mountain or local air traffic control signal or radar would definitely suggest to a smart commander that “We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto” So we’re saddled with a commander of doubtful competence. So, assuming our fearful leader can get his act together what should he do? First, he needs to understand what his situation is. So, he needs to know where he is, what he has in the way of resources. the terrain, climate, weather, local population and their intentions. In the meantime, the Ground Combat Element of the MEU should be preparing defensive positions for a battalion defensive perimeter around the entire unit. The Logistics Combat Element should be preparing vehicles for combat and movement. The Aviation Combat Element should have set up AA and search radar systems and one reconnaissance configured aircraft should be aloft to provide terrain mapping and intelligence to the unit. This should be in the form of an AV-8 Harrier in reconnaisance configuration and a wingman configured for both Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground roles. It should take no more than an hour or two for the Command Element to figure out about where it is in space. Time may be a different matter and no more than six hours for the unit to be in movement to a more defensible area, say the hill overlooking the Parco de Medici. Contact with civilians would probably initiate the confirmation of location and time period. Albeit, it may require someone familiar with Latin to begin the process of interrogation. Shortly thereafter, I would expect that any civilian observers would alert the city guard in either Magliano or nearby Corvale. The biggest problems will be the limit of JP-4/5 the unit is carrying limiting the Aviation Combat Element’s sustainablility. Other vehicles with the Ground Combat Element with the notable exception of the M1A1s can operate on any combustible fluid including olive oil. Ammunition will also limit the unit’s effectiveness as it carries only a 30 day supply in an “austere expeditionary environment” thereafter, the ability of the unit’s leadership to improvise and to adapt will be tested. Thankfully at this point in time two legions have been deployed to Egypt for combat duties and another has been sent to the St. Bernard Pass in the North to open it from the Salassi. A legion is in Britain and three or four remain in Gaul. Several are deployed to the West and one is deployed to Spain. So, once the Marines encountered the Romans, it might take a couple of years for all of the legions to be able to engage them. Ultimately, time would be the enemy of a Marine unit not commanded by someone very capable. They would probably die in the tradition of the USMC but unless their leadership were very smart and took every advantage of audacity, courage, ambition and wisdom with a fair to middling knowledge of history they would die in vain.

  6. I would need more info to make a accurate judgement. But yes the tatctics of the roman army would be to confront the enemy head on to clash with hand held weapons. There fore the first attack would be devastating. The non- resupply of ammo and food and normal resupply would be critical for the need to reduce the enemy to nothing in the first blow. If this could be possible to face all 330,000 at once the odds are greater than a long protracted fight. But the normal force of a local branch of the roman army or what could be brought up to fight is in all probability is only a small portion of the fighting force available to Rome. They travel on foot, as will our forces when fuel is out. Until then we have a great upper hand. It all depends on time.


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