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Rome, Sweet Rome: Could a Single Marine Unit Destroy the Roman Empire?
Popular Mechanics ^ | October 31, 2011 | Alyson Sheppard

Posted on 11/02/2011 8:30:47 PM PDT by DogByte6RER

Rome, Sweet Rome: Could a Single Marine Unit Destroy the Roman Empire?

It was a hypothetical question that became a long online discussion and now a movie in development: Could a small group of heavily armed modern-day Marines take down the Roman Empire at its height? We talked about the debate with James Erwin, the man who scored a movie writing contract based on his online response, and ran the ideas by Roman history expert Adrian Goldsworthy.

James Erwin was browsing on his lunch break when a thread piqued his interest. A user called The_Quiet_Earth had 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?"

The question struck a chord with the 37-year-old Erwin, a technical writer from Des Moines, Iowa, who happened to be finishing a book called The Encyclopedia of U.S. Military Actions (Through Facts on File). Erwin tells PM that he wasn’t impressed by other users’ early attempts to answer this question, and so, posting under the username Prufrock451, he came up with his own response. Erwin wrote a 350-word short story chronicling the fictitious 35th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which suddenly disappears from modern-day Kabul and reappears on the Tiber River in 23 B.C. Erwin posted the piece, finished his meal, and went back to work.

After work, Erwin checked reddit. Thousands of users had read his post and they demanded more. Excited and overwhelmed, Erwin continued submitting pieces of this growing Internet phenomenon. The next day, Los Angeles–based management firm Madhouse Entertainment contacted him about representation. Within the week, after Erwin had put just more than 3500 words to screen, Warner Brothers Studios bought the movie rights.

Erwin’s story, which he titled Rome, Sweet Rome, has a cult following among reddit members, its own subreddit on the site, and has inspired fan music and art. But from the beginning, his posts received comments critiquing the accuracy of his conjured tale. Other redditors commented. Historians commented. Marines commented. "You can definitely tell that the story was something that I dashed out on my lunch hour without doing a lot of research beforehand," says Erwin, an encyclopedia writer and two-time Jeopardy! champ. "Any Marine is going to see mistakes in it, and I’m sure if there were Romans around, they’d say the same thing." He plans on doing intensive technical research during the screenwriting process.

So—disregarding troubling questions about time travel and just why some temporally displaced Marines would feel compelled to destroy an empire——could a single MEU destroy the Roman Empire? To sort through the flood of online responses, PM talked to a Roman military expert and found out how the two sides would line up.


An MEU typically contains about 2200 troops, along with their artillery and vehicles. According to Erwin’s original reddit story (which will be altered for the movie), the Marines are transported back in time with what they have with them, including M1 Abrams battle tanks, bulletproof vests, M4 rifles, and grenades.

The year Erwin chose (23 B.C.) falls in the reign of Augustus, great-nephew of Julius Caesar and considered the first Roman emperor. His legions numbered nearly 330,000 men. They wore heavy leather and metal armor, carried swords and javelins, and operated catapults. They would have never heard the sound of an explosion before. "Obviously, there is a massive difference in firepower," says Roman military expert and author Adrian Goldsworthy. "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."

In the reddit story, however, Erwin said the Marines would not be resupplied with bullets, batteries, or gasoline from the modern world. "There would be no way of obtaining replacements for these supplies in the ancient world," Goldsworthy says. "An average unit of Marines is not likely to be able to make an oil refinery, start generating electricity, or create machine tools to make spare parts for equipment." And even if they could figure it out, it would take many months or even years. So, as soon as the Marines ran out of gas, their tanks would become little more than hunks of metal.

"In the short term and in the open, modern infantry could massacre any ancient soldiers at little risk to themselves," Goldsworthy says. "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."


Erwin’s reddit story stipulates that no more Marines will come back in time, although they may recruit in the ancient world. The Marines would have to; even at their lowest periods, the Roman Empire could conscript hundreds of thousands of soldiers whenever it wanted.

"A Roman centurion would say ‘Let’s take 1000 of these guys. Five hundred of them don’t come back? Get another 500 guys,’" Erwin says. "Americans have never been very good at sending people out as cannon fodder. Marines are better trained and are much harder to replace. No Marine sees himself as a cog, and no Marine is."

Both sides pride themselves on having competent leaders down to the smallest unit level. Goldsworthy says the battle would depend on who had the better officers. Erwin believes it would be shock and awe versus numbers.

"Marines are the best warriors ever trained," he says. "But they can’t fight an endless wave of soldiers. No one can."


The Roman legions and Marines are both highly trained with a clear unit structure and hierarchy of command. They emphasize aggression, dominating the opponent, unit cohesion, and being flexible on the ground. "It’s easy to arrange people like chess pieces and march them in a direction," Erwin says. "But when you’ve got basically huge gangs of people going toward each other at knifepoint, it’s very hard to maintain a plan. So they have to improvise."

Romans depended on intimidation to psych out their opponents. They marched in unison and appeared as big and conspicuous as possible, overlapping shields to protect each other from attack. But wearing bright colors and lining up straight isn’t going to do much good against a unit of Marines, who would be best off attacking guerilla-style while the Romans marched.

One advantage for the Marines: a knowledge of military history. The Marines would know from Rome’s history that its legions could be susceptible to ambushes, such as the one that led to their crushing defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The Marines would have serious disadvantages such as navigation, Goldsworthy says. Besides losing all satellite navigation, their modern maps would be practically useless—everything from the course of rivers to the placement of forests would be different. But, at least in their first encounters with the Marines, the Romans probably wouldn’t know that.

The key for the Marines would be to stay on the move and avoid getting bogged down in one place. If they stood still, Goldsworthy says, the Romans could easily surround them and then take advantage of their huge numbers advantage. The Romans would probably use a variety of nasty siege weapons on the Marines, such as the scorpion, a large crossbow that rapidly fired long bolts. Romans were also known to cut off opponents from water and food supplies, forcing them to surrender or die.

Who Would Win?

Historian Goldsworthy says the MEU would probably lose in the long term—without the ability to resupply their modern weapons, they simply wouldn’t be able to overcome the Roman numbers. However, he says, they could destabilize the Roman Empire, encourage civil war, and initiate regional fracturing. "[The Marines] might discredit the Emperor by defeating the closest army to Rome," he says. "But they would lack the numbers to control Rome itself—with a population of a million or so—let alone the wider empire."

What about in the film? Erwin says he knows the ending, but won’t reveal it anytime soon. He’s currently on leave from his technical writing job to work on the screenplay full-time. A release date for the film version of Rome, Sweet Rome, or what it will be called, is still unknown.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Foreign Affairs; Miscellaneous
KEYWORDS: alternatehistory; bc; beiteversocrumbly; caesar; godsgravesglyphs; marines; meu; militaryhistory; romanempire; romanlegion; rome; romesweetrome; scifi; timetravel; usmc
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Reenactors simulating a Roman defensive posture.

1 posted on 11/02/2011 8:30:50 PM PDT by DogByte6RER
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To: DogByte6RER

Or could Chuck Norris do it on his own?

2 posted on 11/02/2011 8:34:08 PM PDT by mnehring
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To: DogByte6RER
Now a 21st century CVN battle group in WWII on the other hand...

From the trilogy, "Axis of Time."

3 posted on 11/02/2011 8:42:27 PM PDT by buccaneer81 (ECOMCON)
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To: DogByte6RER

As long as they don’t run out of ammo.

4 posted on 11/02/2011 8:43:20 PM PDT by E. Pluribus Unum (The enemy of my enemy is my candidate.)
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To: DogByte6RER

Typical MEU Loadout:

Qty Nomenclature Element
4 M1A1 main battle tank ground
7 to 16 Light Armored Vehicle ground
15 Amphibious Assault Vehicle ground
6 155mm howitzer: M198 or M777 ground
8 M252 81mm mortar ground
8 BGM-71 Tube Launched, Optically Tracked, Wire Guided (TOW) missile weapon system ground
8 FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile ground
4 to 6 AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopters aviation
3 UH-1N Twin Huey utility helicopter aviation
12 CH-46E Sea Knight medium lift assault helicopter aviation
4 CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift assault helicopter aviation
6 AV-8B Harrier jet aviation
2 KC-130 Hercules re-fueler/transport aircraft
Note: usually maintained in the continental United States aviation
2 Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit logistics
1 LMT 3000 water purification unit logistics
4 Tractor, Rubber Tire, Articulated Steering logistics
2 TX51-19M Rough Terrain Forklift logistics
3 D7 bulldozer logistics
1 Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement dump truck logistics
4 Mk48 Logistics Vehicle System logistics
7 500 gallon water containers multiple
63 Humvee multiple
30 Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement trucks multiple

Many types of equipment are, or will soon, undergo a transitory phase as they are replaced. Some examples include the MV-22 Osprey replacing the CH-46, Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle replacing the AAV, and the H-1 upgrade program (where the AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom replace the AH-1W and UH-1N).

Supplies for 15 full days of operation at intensity, without support.

That’s a LOT of bullets and gas, folks. Especially against arrows and a Gladius.

5 posted on 11/02/2011 8:43:57 PM PDT by tcrlaf (Election 2012: THE RAPTURE OF THE DEMOCRATS)
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To: DogByte6RER

A few dozen Spanish with muskets and swords defeated 5 0r 20 million Aztecs, so yeah, the Marines would win, unless they ran out of bullets.

6 posted on 11/02/2011 8:45:31 PM PDT by Defiant (President Odinga is setting the stage for chaos in the streets. Obey!)
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To: DogByte6RER

The Marines [and the authors of the idea] should have checked with Hannibal Barca. He killed something like 80,000 Romans in one afternoon [one of three major battles he won], and still lost the war.

And although the Romans ceased colonization after Teutoberg Forest, they destroyed most of Western Germany over the next three years.

7 posted on 11/02/2011 8:46:32 PM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: DogByte6RER

What if Napoleon had an A-bomb at Waterloo?

8 posted on 11/02/2011 8:48:58 PM PDT by CarryaBigStick (My office is an Air Tractor)
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To: mnehring
Control Rome itself?

Level it and create terror.

Absolutely the potential would be there to recreate power, and possibly to eventually refine fuels, although as stated fuels might take years. Crude chemical weapons would not take years.

With electricity alone however, you have thermal imaging and light amplification. Never let Roman forces rest at night. Even fabricated crossbows are going to wither forces who can't see.

When does the film hit?

9 posted on 11/02/2011 8:49:28 PM PDT by MrEdd (Heck? Geewhiz Cripes, thats the place where people who don't believe in Gosh think they aint going.)
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To: PzLdr

The Marines would suffer more casualties from the local water, than they would the entire Roman Army, in the field.

10 posted on 11/02/2011 8:49:46 PM PDT by tcrlaf (Election 2012: THE RAPTURE OF THE DEMOCRATS)
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To: MrEdd

All it would take is one guy capable of making BIO-DIESEL in a garage.
Military engines are designed to run on all types of diesel, not just the pure kind we have in the states.

11 posted on 11/02/2011 8:51:50 PM PDT by tcrlaf (Election 2012: THE RAPTURE OF THE DEMOCRATS)
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To: DogByte6RER
Logistics permitting, hell yes!

Could a Single Marine Unit Destroy the Roman Empire?

BTW, just how big is their "unit?"

12 posted on 11/02/2011 8:51:57 PM PDT by Rudder (The Main Stream Media is Our Enemy---get used to it.)
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To: PzLdr

The marines would have to use their superior firepower to enlist recruits, maybe inspire major defections from the Roman government and military. They need to leverage the awe into some kind of capitulation by the Romans.

But if they just start out somewhere and commence fighting, they will run out of ammo and fuel.

13 posted on 11/02/2011 8:52:26 PM PDT by Williams (Honey Badger Don't Care)
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To: DogByte6RER

14 posted on 11/02/2011 8:55:37 PM PDT by justlurking (The only remedy for a bad guy with a gun is a good WOMAN (Sgt. Kimberly Munley) with a gun)
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To: CarryaBigStick
What if Napoleon had an A-bomb at Waterloo?

In his book Guns of the South (New York; Ballantine, 1992), Henry Turtledove speculates what might have happened had the Confederate army been equipped with Kalashnikovs in 1864.

15 posted on 11/02/2011 8:58:33 PM PDT by Fiji Hill
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To: tcrlaf

There is a science fiction/fantasy writer named David Drake who has written a number of short stories featuring Roman soldiers. Several told of a Roman legion that had been defeated and the survivors sold into slavery. Their new masters were from a Galatic trading empire that was restricted to using low-tech methods to conquer planets so they could trade with them.

16 posted on 11/02/2011 8:58:53 PM PDT by JayVee (Joseph)
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To: CarryaBigStick
What if Napoleon had an A-bomb at Waterloo?

Then I guess it wouldn't be his "Waterloo" any longer.

Our weapons systems, applied early in the battle, would ease our logistics load by wiping out most of the enemy within a week.

The rest of our efforts would be mop-up (pacification).

17 posted on 11/02/2011 8:59:01 PM PDT by Rudder (The Main Stream Media is Our Enemy---get used to it.)
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To: DogByte6RER

Next week on What If...what if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?

18 posted on 11/02/2011 8:59:59 PM PDT by Wallop the Cat
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To: DogByte6RER

Reminds me of the SNL skit “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?”

19 posted on 11/02/2011 9:03:02 PM PDT by Kirkwood (Zombie Hunter)
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To: Travis McGee; archy


20 posted on 11/02/2011 9:03:31 PM PDT by tarheelswamprat
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