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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: MattinNJ

True. The marines know about that, and they won’t be short of allies against Rome.

41 posted on 11/02/2011 9:33:03 PM PDT by Defiant (President Odinga is setting the stage for chaos in the streets. Obey!)
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To: The_Reader_David

What if Ogatai Khan didn’t die in the winter of 1241, and Sabotai and the Princes continued the conquest of Europe?

42 posted on 11/02/2011 9:34:07 PM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: MattinNJ

Cortez - Mexico - Aztecs. Pizarro - Peru - Incas.

But in both cases the Spanish took advantage of bitter divisions among the natives to make their conquest, helped greatly by massive epidemics that disorganized the native empires.

Even with their stone age tech, it is highly unlikely the Spaniards could have conquered either Mexico or Peru if these empires had been united and healthy.

43 posted on 11/02/2011 9:34:21 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: JayVee

There is another guy Weber who wrote a similar story(He wrote the Honor series) about some English knights plucked off a sinking ship from the 8th century who were used for the same purpose. Overtime, the adaptability of the English knights allowed them to turn the tables on their captors and take over the ship and start a rebellion of sorts against the ruling galactic consortium.

44 posted on 11/02/2011 9:36:29 PM PDT by mdmathis6 (Christ came not to make mankind into God but to put God into men!)
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To: CarryaBigStick

Yes. This was the “What If?” segment. The Waterloo skit featured the interior of B-52 where they flip a few switches and pronounce the battle won.

My favorite was “What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?” I was amused by Garret Morris as an Air Force General commenting that, “... she would be extreeeeemly vulnerable to anti aircraft fire.”

45 posted on 11/02/2011 9:38:42 PM PDT by dr_lew
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To: BenKenobi

Righto. If they’re actually stuck there, which makes more sense: trying to conquer a massive empire, which IMO would be utterly impossible. Or accepting positions of wealth and power within that empire.

46 posted on 11/02/2011 9:39:20 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: Sherman Logan
You might like Poul Andersons “The Man Who Came Early”. The story is presented in the first person, related by a Saga-Age Icelander named Ospak Ulfsson. During a violent thunderstorm, an unexplained phenomenon transports the titular 20th-century American GI back in time to Ospak’s homestead. The American, who becomes known as Gerald “Samsson”, is an engineering student drafted to serve at Keflavik during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It's from around 1956 and the story is sort of a reverse A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
47 posted on 11/02/2011 9:39:26 PM PDT by JimC214
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To: DogByte6RER

Any of you guys see The Eagle? Wonderful film about recapturing the eagle standard stolen by Scottish tribes.

48 posted on 11/02/2011 9:40:18 PM PDT by garjog
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To: mdmathis6

There’s another one [by I believe Weber also] about Romans captured at Carrhae sold to aliens from outer space who use them as mercs for low tech wars, revive them from all but the most serious wounds, and keep them alive until the present when the romans escape back to Earth. And it gets interesting from there.

49 posted on 11/02/2011 9:40:34 PM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: The_Reader_David

Wow, I learned something about a period of history that I absolutely love. He did an amazing amount in just 6 short years and was just 22. Gosh. What could have been, indeed.

50 posted on 11/02/2011 9:42:06 PM PDT by BenKenobi (Honkeys for Herman! 10 percent is enough for God; 9 percent is enough for government)
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To: PzLdr

I believe that’s the same one as post 16.

51 posted on 11/02/2011 9:43:09 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: DogByte6RER
There is an old novella from the 1930s called Lest Darkness Fall that is probably one of the first alternative Roman history science fiction stories. If you're interested in this thread, you would probably be interested in this story. This involves only one individual mysteriously transported back in time. The protagonist of "Lest Darkness Fall" finds himself in Italy during late antiquity after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Justinian (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire) is trying to reconquer and reestablish the Western Roman Empire and the protagonist gets himself involved with the Lombards fighting against the Byzantines. I always thought that this story would make a great movie. However, the time setting would probably have to be changed since few people are familiar with the history after the fall of the Roman Empire. Most of what people know about the Roman Empire is from "Gladiator."
52 posted on 11/02/2011 9:46:32 PM PDT by eeman
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To: Sherman Logan

I would love it if that’s the ending, where they are summoned to the imperial court to meet with Octavian himself, and they accept.

Wouldn’t that be a heck of an ending.

53 posted on 11/02/2011 9:47:49 PM PDT by BenKenobi (Honkeys for Herman! 10 percent is enough for God; 9 percent is enough for government)
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To: BenKenobi

Only problem is that I think a modern America would find it very difficult to live in the Roman Empire.

The casual brutality, slavery, etc. of the time is quite appalling.

54 posted on 11/02/2011 9:57:59 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: Sherman Logan

Point not addressed. Some modern flues are descended from the flue virus of 1918. There is also the bubonic plague and any number of bioweapon possibilities.

How ruthless a campaign do we want?

55 posted on 11/02/2011 9:58:21 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: tcrlaf

They wouldn’t have modern filtration methods so solids would quickly clog the fuel injectors.


56 posted on 11/02/2011 9:58:32 PM PDT by MontaniSemperLiberi (Moutaineers are Always Free)
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To: DogByte6RER

The Marines would have no motive to fight the Romans. They would have a motive to join the Romans and wipe out the Arabs.

57 posted on 11/02/2011 10:05:11 PM PDT by UnwashedPeasant (Don't nuke me, bro)
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To: MrEdd

Good point. Each side would have different germs and anti-bodies.

My bet is that the Romans would have the immunity advantage, since it is their turf and they did not live in modern sanitation.

58 posted on 11/02/2011 10:16:17 PM PDT by UnwashedPeasant (Don't nuke me, bro)
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To: Defiant
A few dozen Spanish with muskets and swords defeated 5 0r 20 million Aztecs,

Not exactly. The Aztec client states rebelled and attacked along with the Spanish in an attempt to throw off the Aztec oppression. And there were a lot more of them then there were of the Aztecs.

Of course, later they found out the Spanish were not much better. That is usually the way it goes.

59 posted on 11/02/2011 10:16:53 PM PDT by Harmless Teddy Bear (*Philosophy lesson 117-22b: Anyone who demands to be respected is undeserving of it.*)
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To: DogByte6RER

just thinking about the disease/medical angle is interesting. Are soldiers vaccinated against smallpox now? Plus all the other ways of dying of illness that we no longer take for granted but were a normal element of human life forever, up until very recently.

a solar-recharge capability for communications would certainly open some interesting possiblities for the romans once they co-opted the survivors (hopefully).

If they lost, but managed to somehow preclude augustus marrying tiberius’ mother it might have saved his children, as well as germanicus. That single issue (tiberius and his mother) was a major negative in how the roman empire developed. You could argue that germanicus being removed from the rhine left that territory to be allowed to be lost.

60 posted on 11/02/2011 10:31:22 PM PDT by WoofDog123
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