Posed as a hypothetical question on the megasite reddit.com, 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.
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?
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?
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