How Many U.S. Marines Could Bring Down the Roman Empire?

It all started as a thought experiment on Reddit.com when a user posed the question: “Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?”

Then the Reddit user offered a more precise scenario:

Let’s say we go back in time with a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) … could we destroy all 30 of Augustus’ legions?

We’d be up against nearly 330,000 men since each legion was comprised of 11,000 men. These men are typically equipped with limb and torso armor made of metal, and for weaponry they carry swords, spears, bows and other stabbing implements. We’d also encounter siege weapons like catapults and crude incendiary weapons.

We’d be made up of about 2000 members, of which about half would be participating in ground attack operations. We can use our mechanized vehicles (60 Humvees, 16 armored vehicles, etc), but we cannot use our attack air support, only our transport aircraft.

We also have medics with us, modern medical equipment and drugs, and engineers, but we no longer have a magical time-traveling supply line (we did have but the timelords frowned upon it, sadly!) that provides us with all the ammunition, equipment and sustenance we need to survive. We’ll have to succeed with the stuff we brought with us.

So, will we be victorious?

The question touched off a frenzy of discussion. One user, James Erwin, wrote a short story, Rome Sweet Rome, imagining how the battles might play out, and Warner Bros. came along and bought the movie rights to the story. And now professional historians are weighing in. Interviewed in Popular Mechanics, historian Adrian Goldsworthy, an expert on the Roman army, offered these thoughts:

Obviously, there is a massive difference in firepower. Not only would Roman armor be useless against a rifle round—let alone a grenade launcher or a .50 caliber machine gun—it would probably distort the bullet’s shape and make the wound worse.

But here comes the difficulty:

In the short term and in the open, modern infantry could massacre any ancient soldiers at little risk to themselves. But you could not support modern infantry. So all of these weapons and vehicles could make a brief, dramatic, and even devastating appearance, but would very quickly become useless. Probably in a matter of days…. Marines are the best warriors ever trained. But they can’t fight an endless wave of soldiers. No one can.

You can find the rest of Goldsworthy’s thoughts here, and several good Roman history courses in our big collection of Free Online Courses.

via Andrew Sullivan


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  1. Charles Edward Frith (@charlesfrith) says . . . | November 15, 2011 / 6:34 am

    Despite spending more money on killing than all other countries put together the telling point here is Americans have, in the absence of an honourable victory or defeat resorted to fantasizing over battles with armies from antiquity.

    It says a lot. They can always jerk off to the Indians that were wiped out in their millions but that one is a little too close to home.

  2. Raymond says . . . | November 15, 2011 / 9:18 am

    The answer is: NO. The moment the US soldiers start firing, all of the marines whose surnames end in a vocal would vanish cause lets face it if you’re American you’re Italian or you’re Irish

  3. Abdul Basir Muhammad says . . . | November 15, 2011 / 10:56 am

    Historians underestimate gap in tactics the shock an awe of our modern weapons will disrupt the command and control structure of any single legion . A few spectacular victories is all that is needed the legions will fall apart and probably even mass defections.

  4. Bart says . . . | November 15, 2011 / 1:58 pm

    I’m in to negotiate with the emperor, can I bring my Latin teacher too?

  5. Michelle says . . . | November 15, 2011 / 2:01 pm

    Everyone needs to remember to stick to the question and leave your comments or thoughts about the US anything at the door…It would be a wave of force unlike all others but the Marines would have to make each and every thing count. Nothing could be wasted because once it’s gone, it’s gone.

    Now, people are focusing on the hardware depletion when, as Abdul said, they have to remember another huge factor..the psychological one. Once the first volley is fired and they see those tanks it’s pretty much over. Any modern leader worth their salt would be using that to their utmost advantage.

  6. Barb Drummond says . . . | November 16, 2011 / 2:22 am

    The story of Isaac Asmimov’s Foundation series keeps repeating. It’s the little things that bring down an empire. Everything in our modern world is totally dependent on technology. The Romans would win easily.

  7. Steve says . . . | November 16, 2011 / 9:27 am

    One Marine sniper team will create havoc as the Roman officers are killed off because they wouldn’t know to take cover at such a distance from the enemy. The the legions will begin to see the contemporary weapons causing devastation on their ranks and, particularly with their officers killed at a great and unimaginable distance, run like hell.

  8. Juan says . . . | November 16, 2011 / 11:49 am

    Although I appreciate the historical curiosity, I am glad to see I was not the only one thinking that it is a very fascist question. We are literally fantasizing with the death and suffering of thousands of men (even Roman soldiers who made that matter exactly their own business). Of course, we are also forgetting the casualties among our own Marines. Plus the heavy civilian dying and suffering that takes place in every conquest.

  9. bennet says . . . | November 17, 2011 / 12:12 am

    Gordon of Khartoum inflicted 11,000 casualties on the Mahdi’s army for the loss of 50 of his own men – and that was over 100 years ago. Simple maths would imply that the marines wouldn’t have too much trouble.

  10. Jose Mendes says . . . | December 9, 2011 / 11:54 pm

    Think of Pizarro and Cortez and the Aztec and Inca Empires. A modern invading force, if simply intent on using military power might even be defeated if a guerilla type of war developed on the lines of “moderns” agains “ancients”. But you would have to be a pretty thick commander if you did not play power politics with the ancients.

    Rome was a very divided society: Within factions of the tiny rulling elite, between rich citizens and poor citizens. Between the metropolitan members of the rulling class and the provincial magnates. Between Romans and the different subjected peoples of the empire. And of course the slave class whose revolts were always feared.

    I sugest you read Peter Heather’s The fall of the Roman Empire. There he points out that one overlooked but important element on the fall of the Empire was the breakdown of social order in the countryside sparked by the barbarian invasions. A barbarian army or people would come into a province forcing at the very least, the legions to retreat and concentrate to strongholds. Without the back up of that military arm the rural population (composed of slaves from great noble estates or supposedly free peasants who were half bonded by debt to the local magnates) took to plundering and attacking a social order that did nothing for them, forming bands of “brigantes” i.e. thiefs and rebels that often would follow the barbarian armies to re-plunder a recently attacked province and effectively prevented that province to rebuild itself and become a usefull tax paying part of the Empire again.

    Using superstition, using the support of some population groups against others and even using the external enemies of Rome like the Persian Empire, you could indeed defeat the roman Empire.

    On top of that you can use both the system the british used to rule India (using local rulers…from chieftains to proper client kings..like Armenia, Galatia etc) or the Manchu to rule China…by appropriating the Ming administration and power structures.

  11. Jose Mendes says . . . | December 10, 2011 / 12:39 am

    And why kill te poor Roman soldiers? A couple of explosions and the flight of a few helicopters over their heads and they would be running to the hills thinking the gods had come down to Earth. Think of the impact that seeing spanish soldiers ridding horses had on inca and aztec warriors. They were terrified! In a world were humans have not started dreaming about flying to have a scary noisy helicopter flying above you would be more than enough to scater a legion and make fortified cities open their gates.

    I myself with fly over the city of Rome and throw loafs of bread to the scared populace with printed leaflets in latin saying the gods sent me to rule Rome and punish injustice and see how that went down. At the very least I would be creating a faction inside the city to support me.

    Or use fireworks for a few nights (careful not to burn the city down) before entering as a representative of the gods.
    It is also a time were army operations had to be limited to seasons when armies could feed off the land (i.e. robbing the peasants) so a modern army with enough supplies and using modern logistics would have a huge advantage in the winter.

    You could also attack the Empire gradually. Start with a rich province like Sicily that can provide for your modern troops basic needs and start basic support industries for your invasion army. Get the locals to provide the bulk of an army that the modern troops will be the back bone of.

  12. Jose Mendes says . . . | December 10, 2011 / 2:14 am

    Just read the Rome sweet Rome story and not convinced by it.

    Like the Earthquake and then the soldiers find themselves in a different time and place. But how long would it take you to realise you are 1st in Italy (specially if you have aeroplanes which would allow you to start recognising basic geography points….would you really miss the alps or the Po valley or mount Etna? If you do you should not be flying an aeroplane) And surely the abundance of olive trees would be a give away that you had moved from Afghanistan to somewhere in the Mediterranean basin.

    It could take a bit more time to find, or after finding, accepting, that you are in a different time continum.

    The author is also not using the biggest weapons at our disposal: superstition, knoledge of our enemy, our technological superiority in litle things, food preservation, basic medical relief…

    The issue of morale is interesting…a few roman wenches, the idea that we are all in this together and the possibilites offered by knowing that you would be part of the ruling elite and live quite well off should cheer one up…but also start internal conflicts.

    He doesent say much of the civilian contractors and that offers so many story line possibilities my head spins. Imagine a nice looking UN volunteer, altruisitc, head set on improving the world, acting like a moral voice and elements more interested in taking advantage of the situation…oh those roman wenches again…and the military in the middle trying to keep the whole group together…with a vision that the american constitution knows best but also that you need order to win a war and keep an empire and that human rights for all are ideal but might be the first casualty of war (umm do we liberate the slaves or not…specially when the roman wenches we like so much would as slaves mend our socks and do other things just as we like it..which they might not want to do if they are free)

  13. Jose Mendes says . . . | December 10, 2011 / 2:29 am

    Regarding the matter of supplies…well we should know more or less where to find them no? We just need to explore the resources and set up those basic support industries I mentioned before. We know we can find oil easyly (on the surface even) in some parts of the world (Azerbaijan, Irak) so we just need to know how to refine it…and its just basic chemistry.

    Food can be sourced localy…it is after all what the armies of that time did. Goat and sheeps meat is delicious, a few cheeses, bread and olives stolen from the local peasants or negotiated with the local chieftains (if out of Italy) and even local authorities, and you have an army well fed untill you are powerfull enough to demand tribute.

    Amunition and gun powder can be fabricated in rudimentary ways if you know how to do it…even a modest officer would have enough knoledge of military history to know the weaknesses of the roman army and a few basic weapons that can be fabricated and are effective againt the romans…again use disafected locals to use these and you keep the XXIst century stuff for yourself.

    Both Pizarro and Cortez were quick to find indigenous mistresses of subjected tribes who were fundamental to establish spanish rule in the americas…there are plenty of slaves, peasants, conquered tribes that would be all too happy to give you a hand to defeat the Coortes.

  14. Jose Mendes says . . . | December 10, 2011 / 5:14 am

    Language would not be an excessive obstacle. Yes the latin language speakers would be very usefull (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French Romanian)…any of them would be very quick to point out that the language on mile stones, staelas, etc

    A catholic chaplain could be usefull…I dont think they have to learn latin these days but they still need to know some expressions (canonical right).

    Even you english speakers would be amased how much latin you could understand if you made an effort.

    On Rome sweet Rome I also dont like the fact that the different soldiers are not treated as individuals with lives before being drafted. Everybody has talents and interests that could surely be used. A former farmer would know alot about agriculture. The son of a miner would know alot about mining. Someone that collects stamps would know alot on how to organize a postal service. And we could go on. Knoledge is a thing held by a community, piece by piece and it is incredible what we pick up even without noticing…someone that knows how to hot wire a car already knows more about electricity than anyone in the Roman empire ever did.

    I also do not like the idea that it all has to be reduced to conflict. I mean, I am sure the roman elite would not fancy loosing their grip on power so batles are probable but if you read about the conquistadors of the americas a whole lot more than pure force was used. I mean the conquistadors were sleeping with the locals and using family connections of these women to find allies, they were negotiating with members of the Inca royal family (to backstab them after) using their own technology to impress the natives with their suposed links to the gods. Cuning was more important than force to establish their rule.

    Also, if you offer advantages to you newly conquered people…or if you impress them enough with your “superiority” in any field, the conquered ones will find you interesting as a ruler and may support you or at least want to be in your good books. The romans benefited from this but also think about the Kingdom of Hawaii, Meiji Japan…It is said that the arabs had no trouble conquering the iberian peninsula because when they established themselves they actually reduced the level of taxation being required by the visigothic Kingdom…which pacified the provinces of Hispania very quickly.

    Sorry to bore you all but am finding this idea rather interesting.

  15. Dan Sullivan says . . . | January 19, 2012 / 3:11 pm

    I was attached to a Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2007 and we had a fleet of chips, along with harriers and cobra attack helicopters. I’m not saying we would win. But we will fight until the mission is accomplished. Death before retreat!

  16. dman73165 says . . . | March 6, 2012 / 6:44 pm

    We must remember, a MEU also has two things in it’s arsinal, Chemical and nuclear weapons that can be used if there is no contact with the Commander in chief, as a last result to keep fron getting beaten.

  17. Jon says . . . | July 12, 2012 / 8:54 pm

    A lot of it depends, in sense. Marine snipers could be used, taking out key Roman officers, which could cause havoc in their legions. Artillery, accurately used, could stop an assault by a Roman Legion–not necessarily by obliterating everyone, but the shock and fear of large explosions around them. If the Marines were fully loaded out with ammunition (.223, for example), they could carry 210 rds, with 7-30 rd clips. If each individual shot was a kill shot, and 1500 of the 2200 Marines were used, (considering others are deployed with artillery and armour), they would kill 315,000 Roman Soldiers. Thus said, it is highly unlikely each shot would be a kill shot.

    If used in quick, and decisive blows, the Marines could defeat the entire Roman Army. This would be accomplished by effective use of accurate artillery, followed up by quick-moving armour and Infantry. Snipers would eliminate Roman Officers, causing somewhat of a disinegration of order, and lead to chaos in the Roman Lines.

    Thus said, if done decisively, and wisely, it could be done.

  18. Josh says . . . | October 31, 2012 / 1:34 pm

    Who says you have to defeat the entire Roman army? Take advantage of the concentrated firepower. A single armored vehicle could drive right up to the emperor with impunity. A single fire-team could slice right through the front lines to their command and support. A single mortar strike could panic their cavalry. A single sniper could take out most of a legion’s leadership.

    Even disregarding the pure firepower advantage, the Romans would have no procedures, tactics, or strategies for dealing with explosives, the rapid speed of motorized vehicle, indirect fire, or the even the scouting advantage of binoculars.

  19. Zorro says . . . | November 9, 2012 / 11:28 am

    What if the Marines showed up with a great big wooden horse???

    …filled with 40,000 lbs of Semtex-H?!

  20. John Russell says . . . | November 9, 2012 / 4:16 pm

    Rome wins.
    No rules of engagement…

  21. PacRim Jim says . . . | November 9, 2012 / 5:40 pm

    How many Marines could bring down the Roman Empire?
    None of them, especially since it no longer exists.

  22. Don O'Shei says . . . | November 9, 2012 / 8:11 pm

    A MEU has neither nuclear or chemical weapons under ant normal circumstances.

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  24. Pablo says . . . | April 9, 2013 / 8:29 pm

    Why bother fighting the Romans? Once the marines figured out where in the world they were, they could either build, or otherwise acquire, sea-worthy ships and sail to America. Once here, they could befriend, and blend in with the Native Americans; and get them ready for the eventual arrival of the Europeans. (The marines, knowing history, would paradoxically, also know the future). Trained and educated by a group of modern US Marines, the American Indians would be much better prepared to meet the future coming of the Western European migration. A possible alternative history of America would be a much more interesting discussion than merely the hypothetical outcome of a fight.

  25. Tiberiis says . . . | April 28, 2013 / 4:56 pm

    You have to be kidding me. May I remind you that it has been 2000 years roughly. Thats like comparing people in the 4000s to us.

  26. Octavius says . . . | May 13, 2013 / 8:10 pm

    The legions would eventually surrender after the overwhelming losses. The Roman army wouldn’t continue to fight a losing battle. When they fought the barbarians, several of the battles were lost and they regrouped and fell back to avoid major casualties. This is part of the reason why legions liked Caesar so much because he only put them in battles he knew he had decisive advantages.

  27. Bob says . . . | May 22, 2013 / 7:12 am

    Just put it in your mind on how people you fight or kill.

  28. Bob says . . . | May 22, 2013 / 7:13 am

    It’s not how many people their are it is if you have the skills to take them down.

  29. opériet populabundos says . . . | July 20, 2013 / 9:04 pm

    by the time your initial recon surveillance was began your copiers would be ground unless given evac orders. As such I woud then arm the peasantry with simple arms and tell them of the enemy hordes. I would then take slaves and badge them as frumentarii chiefs. They would spread propaganda amongst non roman tribes while making rome look good. That woul end any guerilla war to come. Then as they would be targeted by snipers, my civilian brute squads would comb the country side for evil foregners. This will tie up all remaining guerilla tactics and thus begins a war of wearing down the enemy. In one swoop. All prisoners and useles non citizens would be rounded up with non patriots. They will be mentally scarred and half starved. I will unleawsh them in a stampede towards your defended goods. As you would waste uncountable bullets on innocent civilians (as always) I will be moving my advanced infantry into your blind spots. Up close and unseen. Since I control all resource and yours is dwindling; I will send traders as spies to colect intel and to act as sleeper assassins. When you are doing busines I will send a suicide squad to burn all your reserves and equipement. Poison your water supply. Asassinate your command. I will send a messenger. He will state anyone defecting will be well cared for. The rest killed until no dust remains. You will canibalize one another. You will betray. This is the american way. We will only clean a few gladii because you will bloody your own daggers. The marines are child of republic. I am eater of republics!

  30. Jesse Cox says . . . | November 6, 2013 / 9:44 am

    After the Romans saw their comrades shredded by .50 caliber bullets and a grenades, I would think that this would have a devastating psychological effect on the remaining Roman soldiers who would give up the fight.

  31. Kolin says . . . | November 23, 2013 / 8:12 am

    Should’ve went with a US Army Corps (or even just a Division.) They can just insert a couple squads right in the heart of rome via Black Hawks and capture Rome’s leaders (Then PSYOP can do their job, drop leaflets, “warn” the roman soldiers about their impending doom, etc.). Then just use heavy artillery and send in heavy armor and stryker brigades to steamroll the roman legions. Other infantry personnel can be used to encircle and prevent anyone from escaping. The other option would be scorched earth tactics.

  32. Kolin says . . . | November 23, 2013 / 8:18 am

    Or we can win without fighting at all using Helicopters with megaphones telling the romans we are the “gods” and they should lay down their arms or die. On those same choppers we will have snipers to pick people off one by one if they do not comply. (technically that’s not considered “attack air support”)

  33. bulls nuts says . . . | January 8, 2014 / 8:51 pm

    only way they could win would be by using there newer weapons if Marine didn’t have none of that not even gun was go hand to hand with train roman i think the roman would easily defeat the marine times were harder back in roman era even mideval soldier i think would win no matter how good u.s marine or any of them are i do think deep down they are scared to die they think of there family’s and even write to them when their sure their going off to war think there not coming back don’t know where there going after they are killed back than in roman era your family could careless of you they kill you just take something from you if they wanted it everything Romans did was for gods they were sure there was after life now day’s nobody thinks like that they were more stronger better train hand to hand and in sword battles now day’s they depend to much on there weapons choppers everything else to me wouldn’t count because not them personal that beat Romans but all there cheating tatics that did but them without any of that just hand to hand sword fighting my option roman would beat marine ass hand’s down they were much more cruel back in that era than what it is now

  34. blehhh says . . . | January 10, 2014 / 2:27 pm

    Since the conventional weapons treaties did not exist in that era, just 1 marine to flick a switch on an ICBM with a hydrogen bomb thousands of miles away would do it. No need to send in anything else. The magnitude of the ensuing explosion would be in the range of tens of millions of tons of TNT. The entire empire would be disintegrated in a fraction of a second.

  35. Paul says . . . | January 22, 2014 / 1:04 am

    Just the posts here, sound like a better movie than what this movie will be. Propaganda, leaflets, drive up to the leadership in a tank LMAO. Wouldn’t even be a war. Would be conquered in 24 hours, don’t need to resort to any resource finding, bullet making, etc. Just save the bullets. Except for the hard headed.

  36. dubbs says . . . | April 21, 2014 / 12:15 pm

    Wasn’t this done before?( ..”seem to remember an aircraft carrier going through a time tunnel and landing right in the middle of WW2..”)

    Anyway, what people are overlooking is the power void that would occur. Wiping out the legions would put the Roman empire in a vulnerable position, and the “barbarian/celtic/germanic” tribes would have swarmed into the empire a lot earlier.

    The effect would have devastated world history as we know it( the barbarians incorporated much of roman knowledge into their own society).Europe might not have come out of the dark ages UNTIL the rise of Islam, and North America as well as central and South America, even much of Asia would be totally different.

    On the other hand, Romans were very resourceful, and I see Marines,throwing in with the Romans once they realize they can never return to the 21st century. Medicines would have been advanced, as well as weapons and machinery( people don’t realize the intelligence and skill found in an MEU); within Roman skill at metal working, even,their ancient knowledge of minerals, the Roman Army,taught by Marines, would have had musket rifles in as little as 5 yrs, as well as simple 18th century style cannons.

    Roman engineers would have had a rail system in approx 20 to 30 yrs( people forget romans were prolific road and public works builders-they created indoor plumbing and hot water public baths!!!). Within an MEU , you have not only Marine fighting men, you haveNavy support teams and even civilian technical contractors! Once communication is established,say to one of the “likeable emperors”, Rome wpuld have been unstoppable.

    Oil would have been discovered and processed within 15 yrs( people forget an M1 abrams can run on damn near ANY liquid fuel source, and bio diesel wouldn’t be hard to make, given ancient roman resource access, and modern military know how. And with either better sailing techniques and training by U.S. Navy personnel, the Romans would have Better sailing ship designs, navigation, and an Naval and commercial force resembling something like the English Navy, circa the 17th to 19th century. Trade routes to Asia would have been opened within 30 yrs of the MEU arriving, barbarian hordes would have been surpressed, and incorporated into Rome, England would have been solidly Roman, and the Americas would have been discovered and conquered by Rome( “Mexicalius”, and the City of New Rome instead of New York). I believe the Marines would have influenced a Roman empire with an emperor somewhat
    Iike the current british monarchy, and the Romans form of slavery would have been abolished for the
    9th to early 20th century form pf capitalism and “wage slavery”( seeing as many current US military personnel have been shamelessly indoctrinated into rightwing politics!)

    n this latter scenario, the only virulently ugly thing would have been the represaion of and possibly destruction of islam, with hard core rightwing christianity as the defacto religion( in place of catholicism) and some limited allowance pf judiasm( state of israel would have been allowed to flourish, albeit as a roman client state)

  37. ace says . . . | June 20, 2014 / 5:42 pm

    The romans would politic immediately after the first 500 men were killed they’d offer women and endless gold and wine and land and the marines would accept and spare the romans and live as kings and the technology would be used to enslave the rest of the world then the slaves would revolt and basically 2014 would be transformed into1540a.d. gunpowder would be a little bit more scarce because of all the wars that came earlier then they should have

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