Ancient and modern

Ukraine, the Roman army and why morale matters

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

Commentators talk much about the morale of the Ukrainian troops and the edge that this has given them over the Russians, even in a technology-dominated conflict. Ancient warfare was a matter of hand-to-hand fighting, where morale is absolutely crucial – ‘defeat in battle always starts with the eyes’, said Tacitus – and the imperial Roman army offers a masterclass in how to generate it.

That army was, uniquely, professional. The soldiers’ physical fitness, kit, mastery of weapons and technical training in battle tactics were second to none.


Their loyalty to the group was reinforced by the closely knit units of eight in which they lived, ate and slept, training and fighting with similar units, all coming together to form the larger units – centuries and cohorts – of which the legions consisted, and under the same officers too. Their job was to ensure they set them an example in training and in battle, earning their respect and trust. Some emperors even went into battle with their troops, as Julius Caesar had done – a tremendous morale-booster. Putin, of course, demanded his generals try to raise morale this way, but there was no morale for his generals to raise, so badly trained were the men.

Then again, the soldiers knew they would be cared for if things did not go their way. If killed in battle, they would be given proper burial; if wounded, proper treatment by army doctors and convalescence.

Finally, once they had served their term, they were pensioned off with a lump sum and perhaps land too in a place where they had served. We hear of soldiers who preferred to continue soldiering.

The emperor Augustus once insisted that no one should join battle unless the prospect of gain was demonstrably greater than the risk of loss. The Ukrainians, fighting for their freedom, do not have that option: they will win, or lose, everything. But if, in this technological age, high morale is the key to victory, how can they keep it as high as it has been? Does it depend on matching their enemy in raining unseen terror from the skies?

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