Military History Speculation

Gun news today is a bit slow, so I’ll open up a speculative discussion. Last night I was looking at Netflix recommendations, and caught this long forgotten movie that has long been overshadowed by its much better predecessor. Up against the British Army, there was never really any question about who was going to win in the end, especially after the British sent two artillery battalions to Natal as reinforcements after the first invasion of the Zulu Kingdom had failed. But what about more evenly matched opponents? Ignoring the logistical impossibility of the Romans keeping an army supplied in South Africa, if you had put the Roman Legionaries up against the Zulu Impis, who would have come out on top? Let’s assume that the Zulu Army consists of about 20,000 Impis, about the same as the Anglo-Zulu War, and armed, organized and disciplined along traditional lines. Assume that the Romans deploy 3 legions, or about 15,000 men, and equipped, organized, and disciplined as a Roman army normally would be about the time of the Gallic Wars. Discuss.

16 thoughts on “Military History Speculation”

  1. Nothing to discus. The Romans would slaughter the Zulu, nearly as quickly as the British did once they were able to assert their superiority of equipment and training (and compensate for their poor senior officership).

    It’s not even an interesting question, because the answer is so clear.

    The romans had sufficient equipment such that they would be at no basic equipment disadvantage; and with higher quality metallurgy, and armor technology (the lorica squamata and segmentata), the hasta, the composite bow… They would in fact be at a large technological advantage.

    The romans knew more about fighting from fortified and field fortified positions than anyone pre machinegun.

    Roman discipline, conditioning, and training… there is literally no comparison.

    Even in the matters of basic field logistics… no comparison.

    If you gave the Romans rifles and basic artillery and 90 days to train with them, they would have been the equal to any pre-machine gun army ever fielded; based on discipline, conditioning, and training alone.

  2. I’d have to agree. The Zulu were brave, trained and disciplined, but their tactics were much more limited. Also, far as I know, they didn’t use armor other than their shield. So up against Roman troops equally brave, trained and disciplined who also had armor, missile weapons and more rounded training and tactics… I fear the Zulu would be screwed.

    Of course, in a generation or two many Zulu would likely have become Roman citizens. Which would open a whole new can of monkeys for the future.

  3. Let’s assume that the Zulu Army consists of about 20,000 Impis, about the same as the Anglo-Zulu War, and armed, organized and disciplined along traditional lines

    Nitpick – an impi is a body of men, in traditional English use a Regiment, not an individual Zulu warrior.

    I’m generally with Chris’s analysis, otherwise.

    (Also, the Romans would never have made the mistake the British made at Isandhlwana and not laagered for the night*.

    * Reading Haggard’s Quatermain stories taught me a lot about that era. Unsurprisingly, since Haggard was there for it.)

  4. The most prolific reason that a Roman Legion ever lost in battle was due to terrain. They were field battlers, the legion moving as one great body nigh impervious from attack.

    When that body is splintered in the Germanic and French woodlands they are easier to pick off and fight with smaller components.

    The Romans were the greatest army of their day (perhaps ever) but they were not the greatest warriors. When you break the army into small skirmishes on unfamiliar terrain you find yourself losing legions.

    With all that being said, given the relative flat open field of battle found in Africa, the Romans would march over and utterly destroy the Zulu.

    All things being equal, the match up surely isn’t.

  5. I agree with the rest. Not the least reason that Roman military might was never divorced from political goals and backing. The Romans would have heavily recruited Auxiliaries from among the Zulus neighboring enemies and used them as skirmishers. This practice freed up the Legions to do what they do best which, as said above, field battles.

  6. Isandlwana happened due to a failure of the British to properly reconnoitre and their deployment of many of their troops too far forward which opened their lines and caused units to be cut off and destroyed in detail.

    If they had actually gone over and looked in the wadis they’d have spotted the Impis with more time to deploy and engage as they closed, and if they had deployed in a tight, mutually supporting formation they could have held the position.

    That’s detailed in the standard text “I win, Zulus.”*

    * Okay, fine, “The Washing of the Spears”

    1. Also “Ammunition will only be issued to the proper personnel, unit, etc.” even when the troops are short and the enemy is closing in.

  7. Rome, 100%. Why? 3 Legions would have had Superior Fortifications, Armor, ARMORED FORMATIONS, Calvary, Auxiliaries with distance weapons such as Slings and Bows, the list goes on. And by the time of the Gallic Wars, the most important would be EXPERIENCE, both Personal in the Ranks plus Institutional through Legion History.

  8. The traditional tactics of both sides strongly favored the Romans. First the Romans had the pilum, a throwing spear that was used to break up enemy formations, along with slingers that could be effective against armored opponents at a distance. The pilum was designed to take shields out of the hands of opponents before closing. Both relied on tight formations to be effective and the Romans would have broken up the Zulu formations.
    The Zulu assegai was an effective weapon in close quarters and had a longer reach than the Roman gladius, but the Roman legions were trained in more flexible tactics. It would be a tough fight, but I don’t think the outcome would be in doubt.
    The Germans did destroy 2 legions during the reign of Augustus, but it had little to do with the Romans not being able to fight in smaller formations on broken ground. Perhaps the commenter was thinking of the Greek or Macedonian Phalanx with did require unbroken formations. The legions were destroyed by treachery by supposed allies and less than stellar upper leadership and they still inflicted a high level of casualties. . The Germans won the battle and convinced Augustus to stay on the other side of the Rhine, but the cost German lives was very high and it is unlikely that they would have been able to do it again.
    The later legions would be a different story.

  9. While I do not have a dog in that hunt; who would you pick to lead your Romans? Fabius Maximus? Scipio Africanus? Or Marcus Crassus? While Crassus used his wealth to bring overwhelming force against Spartacus, he fared much less well against the Parthians.

    As I recall, Surena had greatly inferior forces, but outgeneraled Crassus and gave the legions one of their most decisive defeats.


  10. The Romans would have suffered from diseases that the Zulus might have had immunity to. I say that 70% of the Romans would have been wiped out from disease.

  11. I was wondering how long it would take in this thread for someone to make that mistake.

    You’re fighting in Natal, Transvaal, Orange state etc… not the congo. In fact, when south african tribesmen were used by the british in the jungle states during ww1, they died more than the whites.

  12. Where is the time-displaced Marine Expeditionary Unit during this contest, and which side do they support when they effect link-up?

  13. The Zulus didn’t have the elements that always gave the Romans fits – horse archers and heavy cavalry. It was Parthian Cataphracts and horse archers who killed Caesar’s rival Marcus Crassus and destroyed his army at Carrhae.

    Later on, the Huns gave the Romans similar problems.

  14. More I think about it, there’s a good book there: a few hundred years after Rome collapsed and Europeans started moving back into southern Africa, they meet up with Zulu who’d been Roman citizens/auxiliaries back when, and learned a lot of lessons…

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