Roman tactics and technology helped them create one of the most expansive empires in history. What did Roman soldiers say before they went into battle?
Roman soldiers were required to remain silent while marching and throughout much of their battles. They were permitted to use a Germanic battle cry, known as a “barritus” while facing the enemy across the battlefield. In later years, they often used Christian phrases such as “Deus nobiscum,” or “God is with us”.
For more on Roman battle cries and how they were utilized in psychological warfare, read on.
Silence and Chaos
The Roman civilization was, in some ways, defined by contradictions at its core. Its leaders implemented large scale infrastructure in ways previously unseen, with early forms of modern plumbing and great networks of roads. They established a republic, representing the will of the people to an unprecedented degree.
At the same time, the Romans were prone to violence, forcing slaves to compete in bloody combat in the Colosseum and frequently performing animal sacrifice.
This sense of the modern and antiquated extended to the Roman army. A Roman soldier was expected to display the utmost tactical discipline and obedience, yet also have the strength of will and determination to excel individually.
As such, the Roman leadership had strict rules regarding what its troops could say or shout before and during a battle. Scholars believe that Roman training likely included some form of instruction on when to use battle cries during a battle.
Roman troops marched in silence to ensure discipline was upheld. They were only permitted to use a battle cry immediately before engaging the enemy in close-quarters combat, or when they first clashed with their adversaries.
It was believed that by allowing soldiers to shout frequently in battle, a sense of panic might spread throughout the army. This panic would extend to both men and, in the case of cavalry, horses, and make it far more difficult to effectively issue essential orders during a battle.
The contrast of the Roman battle cry and the relative silence in which they marched and fought was not purely for reasons of discipline and order. It was believed that by releasing an intimidating shout and then calling silent, in unison, the psychological impact of their cry would be enhanced.
In the case of cavalry charges, shouting was believed to be such a detriment that it was completely forbidden until the front ranks had already clashed with the enemy.
The Romans were generally alone in their disciplined silence; their enemies, including the Huns, Avars, and Slavs used war cries liberally. This made Roman discipline all the more important.
A popular Roman war cry came to be known as the “barritus”, which was commonly used by soldiers in the 4th Century CE. “Barritus” translates to “trumpeting” and is believed to have been of Germanic origin.
Throughout several campaigns, the Romans expanded their reach far into what is now Germany. As a result, they recruited extensively from the east of the Rhine river. The war cry, which was a custom among the Germanic warriors, spread through the Roman ranks.
There is no historical record of exactly how the barritus sounded, though it has been described as a harsh roar. Roman soldiers held their shields in front of their faces to further distort the sound of the cry, making it even more intimidating.
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire in the following centuries, the barritus was gradually replaced by Christian invocations. One of the most popular was “Deus nobiscum”, which means “God is with us”.
The leadership later also allowed “Adiuta, Deus”, meaning “God, help us”. These chants had to be officially sanctioned by the commanders of the Roman armies, again displaying the delicate balance between discipline and individuality in the Roman ranks.
Romans also used a “signum” or “watchword”, including “Deus nobiscum”, which was used to identify oneself and distinguish friend from foe. This signum was especially important during periods when factions of Romans soldiers were fighting against each other.
Civil wars and revolts among Romans were a frequent occurrence throughout history, famously including the war between Caesar and Pompey and the conflict between Octavian and Mark Antony. There was little to differentiate between the rank and file soldiers on both sides, so the importance of verbal identifiers was greater than ever.