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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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To: Williams

The point about Hannibal is that the Romans [of that period] didn’t surrender. The Senate refused to ransom captives from Cannae. Survivors were banished to Sicily [despite Rome’s need for trained manpower. The Senate would not allow captives’ families to ransom them. The romans refused to receive Hannibals peace emissary after the battle of Cannae. They never listened to his peace terms. When Hannibal finally got to Rome, the Senate sold the land he was camped on at full market price. Romans didn’t surrender. they just doubled down.

21 posted on 11/02/2011 9:04:03 PM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: buccaneer81
"Now a 21st century CVN battle group in WWII on the other hand..."

Wonder where they got that idea...

22 posted on 11/02/2011 9:05:09 PM PDT by Joe 6-pack (Que me amat, amet et canem meum)
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To: tcrlaf

Six AV-8B’s with cluster munitions would wreak havoc on massed Roman legions (even without a functional JDAM package).

23 posted on 11/02/2011 9:05:22 PM PDT by CarryaBigStick (My office is an Air Tractor)
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To: DogByte6RER

I think the fallacy here is that anything at all that changed back BC would alter the course of history such that there might not even be a United States of America, let alone a modern USMC. I think Alternate Universe plots are more acceptable. One of the best ones, I believe, was “Gunpowder God”, by H. Beam Piper IIRC. The central character is a Pennsylvania State trooper, a real outdoorsman, who stumbles into some kind of wormhole while out hunting woodchucks, and find that his surroundings are much the same, but populated by humans in a sort of early middle ages situation. He signs on with one of the competing factions, teaches the art of manufacturing black powder, soon becomes a favorite of the local female warlord . . . well, it was a good story and I’d enjoy reading it again.

24 posted on 11/02/2011 9:07:32 PM PDT by 19th LA Inf
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To: DogByte6RER
Not quite the same deal, but a favorite movie of mine is "The Final Countdown". It was from early 1980s I believe. The USS Nimitz gets caught in a time warp and reappears on December 6, 1941. So you have a 80s US Carrier that knows where the Japanese fleet is.

Do you go get 'em? Fun to ponder. I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen it. Well maybe a little. The F14s(?)encounter with the Zeros was interesting.

25 posted on 11/02/2011 9:08:50 PM PDT by Pappy Smear (Support the presidency, end the policies.)
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To: DogByte6RER

Technology is a game changer. If Lee had nothing more added than just radio communications to coordinate his attacks at Gettysburg, he wins.

No, a single Marine unit couldn’t slay mass numbers of Roman troops without resupply, but Hernando Cortez defeated an entire Inca Empire with less men than what is being discussed here.

That is the wild card. The technology the Romans encountered by a Marine unit would make the Romans believe they were being punished by the Gods and would more than likely just hand the Empire over to them. Huge metal rooms that move and shoot and explode things. Metal sticks that launch deadly projectiles. Even the radios alone would freak out the Romans.

So no, the MEU could not defeat a Roman army, but they could certainly conquer the Roman empire if they were mistaken for gods.

26 posted on 11/02/2011 9:10:02 PM PDT by Freedom_Is_Not_Free (We be fooked.)
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To: DogByte6RER

IMO kind of a silly idea. The Marines, while their ammo and fuel lasted, would be able to destroy any group that tried to resist them. But they’re still only a couple thousand men. If they try to spread out and occupy territory, they’d be defeated in detail. So they’d have to stay together and could control any 5 or 10 square miles they choose, but only that one patch.

They’d be like the British in our Revolution. March anywhere they choose, with rare exceptions such as Saratoga, but their control exists only within their own lines. Or the Americans in Vietnam. Combat power does NOT necessarily translate directly to political power.

What would actually happen, IMO, is that various ambitious Roman politicos would see an opportunity to grab power and would approach the Marines to strike an alliance. This would be the Marine’s only chance for long-term survival, so they’d shortly be co-opted into the Roman political system.

27 posted on 11/02/2011 9:12:30 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: Kirkwood; Rudder; Fiji Hill

I believe the “What if Napoleon had an A-bomb at Waterloo?” line was also from a SNL skit form the 70’s

28 posted on 11/02/2011 9:12:55 PM PDT by CarryaBigStick (My office is an Air Tractor)
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To: buccaneer81

Who needs an entire CVN battle group! One “boomer” SSBN could finish the job.

29 posted on 11/02/2011 9:13:35 PM PDT by reg45 (I'm not angry that Lincoln freed the slaves. I'm angry that Franklin Roosevelt bought them back.)
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To: JayVee

Eric Flint has written and/or edited a lengthy series based on the idea a typical WV town winds up suddenly in S. Germany in 1632, middle of the 30 Years’ War. They decide to start the American Revolution a little early.

Does a good job of showing the quite significant limitations of superior technology, in combat and economics, especially when available only in small quantities.

As the saying goes, quantity has a quality of its own.

30 posted on 11/02/2011 9:17:07 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: DogByte6RER

31 posted on 11/02/2011 9:20:46 PM PDT by 2ndDivisionVet (You can't invade the US. There'd be a rifle behind every blade of grass.~Admiral Yamamoto)
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To: 60Gunner

keep writing...

32 posted on 11/02/2011 9:22:02 PM PDT by patton ("Je pense donc je suis," - My Horse.)
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To: DogByte6RER

My favorite historical “what-ifs” don’t depend on time-travel:

1. What if Anthemius of Trallus, one of Justinian’s engineers in the construction of the Hagia Sophia had actually developed his use of steam power for more practical uses than annoying his neighbor with simulated earthquakes? He is credited by some with having done this by means of a primitive reciprocating steam engine (albeit without a governor).

and (even more obscure)

2. What if Otto III had lived a long life with his intended bride?

33 posted on 11/02/2011 9:23:03 PM PDT by The_Reader_David (And when they behead your own people in the wars which are to come, then you will know. . .)
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To: PzLdr

The Rome of Augustus was most definitely not the Rome of Scipio or Fabius.

The Roman Republic had been demoralized and destroyed by a century of horrific civil war and recurrent “legal” massacres by proscription. Or Augustus would never have been able to acquire and keep absolute power.

Speaking of Fabius, his tactics would make all the Marine advantages pretty useless.

34 posted on 11/02/2011 9:23:10 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: Defiant

Common misconception. Conquistadors had hundreds of thousands of South American tribesmen as allies because the Aztecs had been slaughtering the neighboring tribes for centuries. Neighbors wanted seriousnpayback. Kinda ruins the libs portrayal of Pre-Columbus Americas as nirvana.

35 posted on 11/02/2011 9:23:21 PM PDT by MattinNJ
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To: CarryaBigStick

36 posted on 11/02/2011 9:23:26 PM PDT by Tribune7 (If you demand perfection you will wind up with leftist Democrats)
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To: Joe 6-pack

Yes, but in “Axis of Time” there is a carrier plus 22 other vessels including an SSN and they’re stuck back in the past for good. They arrive at the battle of Midway and proceed to fight around the globe.

37 posted on 11/02/2011 9:24:59 PM PDT by buccaneer81 (ECOMCON)
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To: MrEdd

I don’t think the night vision advantage can be emphasized enough. These things don’t take much power to run and are pretty rugged, and ancient people were very superstitious. Having to defend everything 24/7 would be very debilitating and demoralizing. You can’t fight what you can’t see.

It would be very disconcerting to find every single sentry around an encampment dead or missing night after night after night, with no apparent struggle.

38 posted on 11/02/2011 9:28:33 PM PDT by The Antiyuppie ("When small men cast long shadows, then it is very late in the day.")
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To: DogByte6RER

Smart Marine Commanders, finding themselves thrust back into
history inexplicably should be smart enough, not to try to influence history but to hunker down defensively while they try to figure out how they got there in the first place and why. Any chaplains in the group would also realize that it was during the days of Augustus that Christ was born. A more interesting location for the modern battle group to have appeared would have been Palestine at that time.

The Romans were adaptive, and mathematics was not unknown at the time. Seeing that it was possible that such weapons could be invented, the Roman power brokers and Caesars would have spared no expense at copying such devices. Roman technical might would have leaped frogged two millenia in very short order while its social institutions would remain barbaric and cruel.

The power of flight would also have been discovered as such marine military force units use reconnansance drones, and choppers and some have harrier jet units. The Romans knew about lodestones(magnetism) and seeing how we put magnetism to use in making electricity, the Romans developing electric power would cause Rome to be a nightmare for the entire world as they would be able to break past the Parthians in the east and to intrude into India. Some Roman genius will say...hmmm perhaps we could power our ships with substances made out of “pitch” as well as the new generators powered with this strange “electricity” and thus the Romans will find the New World and press on to China.

39 posted on 11/02/2011 9:28:43 PM PDT by mdmathis6 (Christ came not to make mankind into God but to put God into men!)
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To: Sherman Logan

Cortez and Pizarro won because they were able to take out the leadership, and because they had the boats to get to where they needed to be.

The question for the Marines, has to be where? Rome was big, much bigger than the Incan or the Aztec empires. They also had naval supremacy. The Marines, as good as they are, how are they going to get across the Mediterreanean? You can’t exactly fit an Abrams on a boat and sail it across the med, not with the technology back then.

Two things, one.

The Romans were good, really good, at political cohesion and negotiation. For the longest time they didn’t fight wars, except against Carthage. Since you’re dropping them in against Augustus, good luck with that. The military deployment in 23 BC, would be after the defeat of Antony and his consolidation of power.

If you are going to win, the Marines would have to figure out a way to kill Caesar Augustus, and take over a legion for themselves. Then, they could probably do some serious damage, but it would take years to consolidate control.

Two, co opting works both ways. If Octavian gets wind of a unit of men with technology far beyond his own, I wouldn’t be surprised if Octavian’s response was to march to meet them personally.

With women. Meet the marines in parley and make it clear to them that they are stranded without any options. Give them options, give them a way out, give them a villa, or command positions if they would swear loyalty to the Emperor.

How many of the typical marines in the typical unit are going to say yes?

40 posted on 11/02/2011 9:30:02 PM PDT by BenKenobi (Honkeys for Herman! 10 percent is enough for God; 9 percent is enough for government)
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