Roman Armor - History of Roman Military Equipment
Roman Empire and Roman Republic managed to shape history of Europe and the world in a significant way in part because of its incredible military strength, which enabled rulers of Rome to expand their holdings across vast distances. Military might of Rome was fueled not only by tight organization and tactics used by their soldiers and military leaders, but also because of their advanced military gear that included many forms of personal armors, weapons and secondary gear. Roman soldiers came in two types, light infantry and heavy infantry, with gear that at first mimicked designs of Greek and Etruscan, but later models were enhanced not only with the innovation of Roman smiths, but also because of the influences of Celts, Carthaginians, and others. It is also very important to notice that once some piece of armor gear or weapon became accepted by the Rome, that gear was manufactured and distributed to entire Roman army, making every Legion (army organization of 5, soldiers) highly standardized. This set of standards that was infused into their practice patterns called “res militaris” or “disciplina” enabled Roman commanders or soldiers to easily be accustomed to new army companies when they were transferred or mobilized back to the service. Every camp was formed to have same shape and form, all gear was standardized, as well as tactic.
Light infantry – Majority of roman troops worn little to no armor, mostly focused on lighter leather armors that were sometimes enhanced with metal. These troops were intended to be used as fast mobile infantry that was also very cheap to maintain.
Lorica hamata – Lorica hamata was Roman mail armor made from interwoven metal rings that was used as a primary armor for heavy infantry during Roman Republic and Roman Empire. Most popular metals were iron and bronze, with flexible design that also allowed attachments of additional protective gear (mostly for shoulders and hands). Because mail armor was not present much in central Europe, it is believed that Romans started producing these kinds of armor after their encounters with the Celts.
Lorica segmentata –Heavy armor created by connecting metal plates of varying sizes across chest, back, and shoulders of soldier that were connected by leather straps. Strips were arranged into horizontal rows, while back usually had strong back plates. Armor was easy to transport because it could be disassembled into four collapsible sections. It was used between 9 BC and 3rd century AD as primary armors of strongest companies of soldiers.
Lorica squamata – Less frequently used Roman armor based on the scale armor design that was worn usually by standard bearers, cavalry, certain types of centurions, axillary infantry and sometimes commanders.
Leg, hand, head and shield armor gear
Manica – Manica was armguard made from thin metal plates that was worn by some Roman soldiers.
Greave – Metal leg protection that had the form of thin metal sheets that was used in later years of Roman history.
Scutum – Large metal-enhanced wood shield that was heavily popularized in Rome for tactical use in group attack or defense moves.
Parma – Circular hand shield around 3 feet across with iron enhancement in the middle of its frame that was mostly used by light infantry.
Cetra – Light shield made from wood and leather, rarely used by Romans.
Galea – Helmets that changed their form over centuries of Roman history. Most had peak on the top and the back of the helmet.
Tunic – Wool garment worn by solders below other armors.
Focale – Scarf that protected neck and shoulders against metal armor.
Braccae – Woolen trousers for both light and heavy infantry.
Balteus – Roman sword belt.
Sagum and the Paenula – Two types of Roman cloaks, first made from wool that was treated with oil to repel water and second one with hood for colder climates.
Pteruges – Skirt made from leather strips that protected upper legs.
Caligae – Roman military leather boots, some were enhanced with metal.
Sarcina – Military pack that included standardized gear such as leather satchel, food, water skin, cooking equipment, stakes for camp construction and entrenching tools (usually small shovel).
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The ancient Roman legions played a key role in the rapid expansion of contemporary Roman civilization. The average Roman soldier was trained to fight in a formation of about 5, fellow warriors, each group forming a Roman legion. Their disciplined fighting tactics played a crucial role in crushing their opponents in battles. It also helped that the Roman infantry came equipped with an armory that allowed for quick offenses and provided a solid defense. Ironically, however, the standards and discipline of ancient Roman military tactics were absent in their military armor and attire. Here is a list of the top 10 ancient Roman pieces of armor and costumes:
The ancient Romans called this belt the balteus. A typical military belt was worn over the shoulder and reached down to the opposite hip. The Roman legions typically used the balteus to hang their sword or any other relevant piece of military equipment on. These belts were mass produced from leather and high-ranking military Romans preferred their baltei to be decorated with valuable gems, stones, and metals.
In the Roman ranks, a single belt to support a dagger and the bearer’s tunic took over from the tradition of two crossed belts popularly worn during the Augustan era. Often, the single belt was embellished with narrow or wide belt plates. These plates were made up of cast brass with a shiny tin or silver finish stamped into them. One style of belt was always rolled and, on occasions, had ball-headed pins attached to it.
9. Legionary Swords
The Roman legions used different kinds of swords of varying shapes and sizes. The smallest one among these was called the pugio. These Roman daggers were pretty handy when they had to fight enemies in very close proximity. Usually the most preferred sidearm, the daggers were equipped with large, leaf-shaped blades inches (18–28cm) in length and around 2 inches (5cm) in width. Next in line is the Roman gladius which is the Latin word for sword. In comparison to other medieval swords, these were rather short – a typical gladius was only 18–24 inches (cm) long. The earliest gladii were succeeded by subsequent, more efficient designs. The most popular of these improved swords were the Mainz gladius and the Pompeii gladius.
Then there were the long swords preferred by soldiers during the middle and late periods of the Roman Empire. These were called the spatha and were popular with the Roman cavalry during first century AD. Soon, the Roman legions also followed suit and switched to spatha around the second to third century AD. This switch also coincided with the Roman military now favoring spears in place of heavier javelins in battles.
Until around the second century BC, the tunic had yet to appear on the scene as a general piece of clothing. Until that time, the toga was worn by Romans of both genders, a tradition the Romans had taken over from their Greek predecessors. It was around the early third century that the tunic started to gain more popularity as it was far more comfortable and practical. In the years that followed, almost all Romans wore it on a regular basis. People with a higher status in Roman society would wear longer tunics, often decorated with stripes and ornaments to reflect their wealth.
In the military, a shirt-like tunic made from a piece of rectangular cloth was worn. This was made from wool, cotton, or linen depending on the climate. In the beginning, military tunics were sleeveless, but later full sleeves were added. Close attention was paid to the length of the tunic so as to make it suitable for the wearer’s rank. A typical Roman soldier’s tunic was an off-white color or dyed red with madder.
7. Helmets (Galea)
The helmet, or the galea, was a crucial part of ancient Roman armory. A Roman soldier would wear it to protect his head from attack on the battlefield. Even some gladiators and myrmillones have been documented to have worn bronze helmets with face masks during gladiator fights. Different units of Roman legions and cavalry wore different shaped and styled helmets. Since all pre-industrial era helmets were handmade, it is rather unclear if the Roman Empire placed certain standards on the galea’s design and shape.
The helmets also had crest holders. These were either centrally mounted plumes or U-shaped removable holders attached to the back of the helmet. Apart from serving as eye-catching helmet decorations, these crests, especially when they incorporated emblems, also acted as identification for different infantry units. But again, unnecessary helmet decoration clearly wasn’t favored during battles and wars. This is also evident from ancient Roman sculpture and art which shows that such decorations were mostly used during parades or festivals.
6. Segmented Armor (Lorica Segmentata)
The segmented armor, also known as lorica segmentata was used by Roman soldiers as a type of personal armor. It was made up of metal strips or hoops cast into oval bands and then attached with leather straps for proper fastening. The metal strips had soft iron on the inside and a certain proportion of steel on the outside.
Sculptures on the Column of Trajan depict various legionaries wearing the segmented armor. Based on this evidence, it had been interpreted that this armor was donned by the legions only. But many historians also state that the depictions on the Column of Trajan stylized the Roman armor making the portrayals rather inaccurate. Many consider these engravings as artists’ impressions and not historically accurate representations. Eventually, the use of segmented armor ceased in ancient Rome, the main reason being its costlier manufacture and tedious maintenance.
5. Greaves (Leg Guard Armor)
Greaves were used as protective leg armor by Roman officers (optio and up). The most frequently used greaves were made from bronze and were also called ocreae. This leg armor primarily protected the wearer’s vulnerable tibia bone from sword or dagger attacks. The bone is covered by a very thin layer of skin which, if not properly guarded, is prone to injuries. The Romans knew very well that a good jab to the shin could gravely injure their soldiers and render them useless in battle.
This is where the greaves came in as a vital protective layer for the tibia and shin. They had a metal exterior and were padded with a softer interior for a comfortable fit on the bearer’s leg. The extra padding also helped to absorb shock from incoming blows to the armor, thus reducing the chances of damaging the shin. Interestingly, during Caesar’s reign, soldiers were required to wear only one greave. They were provided with a four-foot shield to cover the other leg.
4. Mail Armor (Lorica Hamata)
Also called chain mail, this type of armor is made up of small metal rings meshed together in a pattern to make a strong protective layer. When the Romans saw the Gauls using this armor during the days of the Roman Republic, they decided to incorporate it into their own ranks in the form of lorica hamata. During the imperial Roman era, this Roman iteration of mail armor became the primary protective clothing among the legions. Each complete piece of lorica hamata consisted of small iron rings, each ring interconnected with at least two other rings right above or below it.
The chain-mail structure was adequate protection against possible cuts from slashing blades. It also warded off lethal penetration from spears and arrows. On the downside, it could not absorb the massive shocks dealt by powerful blows through its rather thin ring layering. Such massive trauma inflicted from bludgeoning attacks led to severe injury. A well-placed spear could easily crack ribs or dislocate collar bones. In later iterations, the mail armor was padded with soft garments to protect the wearer from shock.
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3. Arm Guards (Lorica Manica)
Arm guards were quite popular among Roman gladiators in the early years. They were made from iron or bronze and were fitted with curved or overlapping plates of metal. Leather straps were used to fasten them to the wearer’s arms. Known back then as lorica manica, they were regularly worn by a group of gladiators known as the crupellarii. It was only much later that Roman soldiers saw their efficiency in warding off blade cuts to arms.
Historians found that a typical manica would include a shoulder plate, a number of metal strips, and an additional 90 leather strips for tight and comfortable fastening. It was then given an inner padding so that it could absorb shocks from powerful spear attacks. Perhaps the biggest evidence of the growing popularity of arm guards among Roman soldiers can be seen in the tombstones of Sextus Valerus Severus and Gaius Annius Salutus. The presence of manicae as a part of the decoration in their tombs along with other weaponry further cements the fact that arm guards had become an integral part of Roman armor at that point.
2. Scale Armor (Lorica Squamata)
Lorica squamata was the name given to scaled armor popularly donned by centurions, cavalry troops, infantry, and even legionaries in ancient Rome. This armor consisted of small metal scales sewn with a fabric backing. Structurally and dimension-wise, it was similar to the standard mail armor. It reached the bearer’s mid-thighs and the shoulders were fitted with capes. For ease of use, it is possible that the armor was done up at the back or down one side. The openings were then closed using comfortable knots.
Each scale armor was constructed from individual scales called squama. The soldiers favored scale armor over mail armor since it provided a better defense against bludgeoning. But again, scale armor has also been documented to be vulnerable to attacks that included a quick upward thrust. Perhaps this vulnerability was much exaggerated as scale armor was extensively used beyond the Roman Empire especially in Persia and Byzantium.
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1. Caligae (Heavy-Soled Military Shoes or Sandals)
Caligae are the legendary military shoes worn by ancient Roman legions and the cavalry. The caligae were heavy-soled boots extensively used by the troops of ancient Rome throughout the republican and imperial eras. These shoes have become truly symbolic of the rise of the Roman Empire with the marching cavalry expanding its borders far and wide.
The caligae were strikingly different from today’s military boots. Air could pass freely to the bearer’s feet and they were particularly good at reducing the chances of getting blisters from non-stop marching. It also helped that chronic foot disabilities such as tinea and trench foot were curbed by regular use of these shoes. Caligae were most common among soldiers up to the rank of centurion as they did most of the marching. Similarly, horsemen wore specially designed equestris, and fighters wore shoes fitted with iron nails beneath the sole for better traction on the battlefield. The shoe was also bound by a strip of soft leather right around the shin, and the toes were always left bare.
When the Romans took over from the Greeks, their empire stretched far beyond previous known boundaries. The elegance and grace of the Greeks gave way to new Roman styles. They created new armor which was suited to the rough weather and terrain of the countries they were conquering. Their armies had to march a long way, so they came up with the caligae. They had to battle against tough adversaries like the barbarians, so they devised armor that provided the best offense and defense in contemporary times. It was their pragmatic yet realistic approach that took the Roman civilization to such great heights.
Roman soldiers wore similar clothing to provide a cohesive look to the army. However, you may be surprised to learn that they did not have an official uniform. Depending on the century, location, and specific situation, soldiers may have worn a variety of clothing and protective items when they went into battle. You can make or purchase many of these pieces for historical reenactment, theater work, or other costumed events.
Roman Soldier Clothing and Armor
Most soldiers in Ancient Rome would have worn the following clothing and armor as they marched into battle.Related Articles
The Classic Roman Tunic
All Roman civilians and soldiers wore tunics. The exact style of the tunics worn by the Roman army varied according to the century in which the soldiers lived. Generally, the tunic was knee length and, depending on the era, may have been long or short sleeved. In the first centuries of the Roman empire, there was a social perception that long sleeves were for women only, so soldiers would have worn short-sleeved garments. Most tunics were made of wool, which could be dyed red or left an off-white color.
The tunic was a very simple garment, and you can make your own without a pattern. For authenticity, hand sew the tunic and leave the wool edges raw. Here's how to do it:
- Spread your arms out to the sides and have someone measure you from upper arm to upper arm. Then have the person measure from the top of your should to just above your knees. Cut two rectangles out of wool fabric according to these dimensions.
- Stack the two rectangles with their right sides together, and sew across the outside portion of the top edge to form shoulder seams. Leave the center part open as a neck hole.
- Sew up the sides of the tunic from the bottom, leaving arm holes.
- To wear the tunic, slip it over your head and top with a leather belt.
The Braccae AKA Trousers
According to Tribunes and Triumphs, Roman soldiers also wore simple trousers called "braccae" that were made of dark red wool. These trousers were usually knee length, like the tunic, but they may also have extended to the ankle in colder climates.
You can purchase a custom pair of Roman braccae from Wulfund. These trousers are made to your measurements, and you can specify the color, fabric, and length. They cost about $
The Focale for Protecting the Neck
According to The Roman Military Research Society, Roman soldiers also wore a focale, or scarf, to protect their necks from their armor. The focale absorbed sweat and kept the armor from chafing the skin. It was usually red and could be made of wool or linen. Soldiers wore it tied loosely around the neck.
Kult of Athena offers a legionary red focale for purchase. It's woolen and made in the USA, and it retails for about $
The Baldric for Supporting Weapons
According to The Roman Military Research Society, soldiers from this era also wore a baldric, or leather strap that passed diagonally over the body. This baldric served to support the soldier's weapons, but because of its diagonal design, it didn't impede his movement.
You can purchase a baldric from Museum Replicas. This all-leather design will support your sword comfortably and retails for $
The Body Armour
In addition to a Roman soldier's regular clothing, he usually wore protective armor, according to RomanMilitary.net. Depending on the time period and the soldier's means, this armor could take a number of different forms. Some families passed armor down through the generations, and soldiers with limited financial resources probably purchased used armor. This meant that the Roman army could be outfitted in several different armor styles.
Typically, armor consisted of torso armor and a bronze helmet which sometimes held a horsehair crest. Depending on the era in which the torso armor was made, it might be constructed of chain mail, overlapping metal or leather plates, or small metal scales. It usually covered the shoulders and torso of the soldier and extended down to the waist; however, there were many different designs. Additional armor pieces were sometimes used to cover the legs or arms.
You can purchase armor in your desired style from Armour Venue. You'll be able to choose from leather or metal armor, and you can select the style or era you prefer. Prices for torso armor start at about $
Buying a Complete Roman Soldier Costume
If you prefer to purchase a ready-made costume rather than assemble your outfit individually, there are a lot of options to choose from. Some are extremely budget-friendly, while others prioritize accuracy. The best choice for you will depend on your budget and how you plan to use your outfit.
- Roman Centurion Costume - This complete outfit from Historical Clothing Realm includes everything you need to accurately dress as a Roman Centurion. It comes with armor, a tunic, sandals, a baldric, and a sword. When ordering, you'll specify your size. This deluxe outfit retails for about $
- Adult Roman Warrior Costume - Featuring faux leather armor and a tunic, as wells as a cape and polyfoam helmet, this budget-friendly costume from HalloweenCostumes.com looks surprisingly authentic. It won't work for serious reenactors, but it's a good choice for costume parties and plays. It comes in regular or extra-large and retails for about $
- Roman Soldier Gold Costume - This budget costume from Costume Supercenter may not be the most authentic, but it's a fun and affordable option. It includes gold-colored plastic armor and a shield, as well as a vinyl-fringed front piece. You'll have to supply your own tunic. It comes in one size to fit most people and retails for just under $
Re-Create the Historical Roman Look
Whether you purchase a ready-made costume or design your own custom Roman soldier uniform, it's fun to re-create the look of this ancient civilization. Pay as much attention to the details as you want, depending on whether you're a historical reenactor, a performer in a play, or simply a party-goer looking for a creative costume choice.
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Roman armor soldiers of pictures
The Roman legionary of the Principate is often thought of as the elite fighting soldier of the ancient world. Carrying his lead-weighted javelins and vicious stabbing sword, his prowess on the classical battlefield was second to none.
However, it is his armour that has provided us with the most enduring image of the warrior, with gallic helmet, banded iron armour and rectangular body shield.
The story of how this panoply came to be is centuries long and reflects both the opponents that the legionary fought, and the great Roman ability to assimilate the ideas and technology of others.
By Dr Simon Elliott
The reforms of Servius Tullius
The earliest Roman military system dates to the reforms of Servius Tullius, the second Etrusco-Roman king who reigned from BC to BC. The state he ruled was dominated by the Etruscan culture to the north which, by the early 7th century BC, had spread its influence to the settlements above the eastern bank of the Tiber, including Rome.
Through their seafaring skills the Etruscans had earlier come into contact with the Greek colonies in southern Italy and eastern Sicily, and from this adopted the Greek hoplite phalanx as the principle fighting formation for their better-armed troops.
Thus when Tullius carried out his reforms of the Etrusco-Roman army, with its wealth-based citizen-levy featuring four classes of line-of-battle troops, the elite First Class were equipped and fought as traditional hoplites.
Their protective equipment featured Italicised-variants of the popular hoplite helmets of their day, for body armour either a bronze bell cuirass or perhaps the Etruscan round cuirass, and the bronze-faced heavy wooden aspis body shield.
Rome became a Republic with the overthrow of Tarquin the Proud in BC, though still maintained the Tullian military system with its core of hoplites.
This continued until the advent of the next reformer of the Roman military system, Marcus Furius Camillus.
The reforms of Camillus
In BC Camillus was appointed consular tribune and given command over the military to bring about the end of the long siege of the rival Etrurian city of Veii, which he successfully did in BC. However his reforms were actually prompted by the Latin defeat by the Senones Gauls at the Battle of Allia in BC, and the subsequent traumatic sack of Rome.
His response was to abandon the phalanx and all other classes of Tullian line-of-battle troops. They were replaced for the first time by the manipular legion.
The manipular legion
Initially these were two in number, each commanded by a consul with six tribuni militum acting as subordinates. The early manipular legion numbered 3, infantry each, though this quickly increased with time, ultimately to over 6,
Within this legion there were three classes of line-of-battle troops, all termed for the first time legionaries. Based on experience and age rather than the equipment they could afford, these were:
- triarii, veterans wearing helmets and body armour, carrying the scutum shield (see below), hasta thrusting spear and sword. These replaced, in part, the old Tullian First Class hoplites.
- principes, older warriors also in helmet and body armour, carrying the scutum, pila heavy throwing javelin and sword. The pila (of Spanish origin) were used to deliver a devastating volley immediately prior to impact with the opposing battle line. These also replaced, in part, the old Tullian First Class hoplites.
- hastati, ‘the flower of young men’, with helmet and lesser body armour, carrying the scutum, pila heavy throwing javelin and sword. These replaced the old Tullian Second class.
It is unclear how quickly the pilum replaced the spear of the old First and Second classes for the principes and hastati, though it was the latter who converted first.
Legionary helmets were worn by all line-of-battle troops no matter their status in the Camillan manipular system. Made from bronze, they fitted the cranium and provided good overall protection.
Designs called Etrusco-Corinthian, Attic and Montefortino were the most common, especially later in this phase of legionary evolution. It was usual for such helmets to feature three purple or black feathers standing up to 50cm in height.
For body armour all legionaries wore a square bronze mm pectoral covering the heart and upper chest. This was held in place with leather straps. Older Italic single and triple disc shaped pectorals were also still in use at this time.
Those who could afford it, usually triarii and principes, replaced the primitive pectorals with lorica hamata chain mail shirts as time went on. Such armour, while offering greatly improved protection, was very heavy at around 15kg.
This covered the torso from the shoulder to the hips, was of Gallic origin (showing the Romans assimilating superior enemy military technology) and was made from interlinked iron rings 1mm thick and up to 9mm in external diameter. Up to 20, were needed for each shirt, making its manufacture very labour intensive and expensive.
If the legionary could afford it this defensive panoply was completed with an iron or bronze greave on the leading left lower leg – both legs for the very well off.
The Camillan scutum shield was a large rectangular curved body shield up to cm in length and 75cm in width, possibly of Samnite origin. Made from planed wooden strips laminated together in three layers, it was very sturdy. An umbones iron boss was attached to the centre where the shield was slightly thicker. It was completed with a calf-skin and felt facing.
The scutum weighed up to 10kg and was held by a horizontal grip using a straightened arm. Crucially, rather than just being used for protection, it was also used as an offensive weapon in its own right, for example being smashed into an opponent to push them over.
A key factor here in the switch from Tullian First Class phalanx to the manipular legionary (and the clearly associated change in the defensive equipment, particularly the shield) was the height of the Gallic warriors faced at Allia and later by the legions of Rome, and their fighting technique.
Taller than their Latin counterparts, they fought with long iron swords using a downward slashing technique. This rendered the hoplite’s aspis, designed to defend the user and his neighbours from frontal attack, less practical.
Another change at this time was in formation density. The triarii, principes, and hastati all formed up in a looser formation than the phalanx. This allowed free use of the sword and scutum, though the triarii could be deployed in closer formation if a hedge of spears was required.
After Rome’s conflict with Pyrrhus in the early 3rd century BC, the Camillan manipular legion further evolved into one dubbed the Polybian system. This again included the triarii, principes, and hastati, with the major change being the replacement of the leves skirmishers who supported the legionaries with velites who were better equipped for the role.
The fourth and fifth classes of the Camillan system, called rorarii and accensi whose role supporting the legionaries is unclear, also disappear from this point. In terms of the defensive panoply the major change here would have been the increasing use of lorica hamata chain mail shirts, particularly by the triarii and principes.
The Marian reforms
The next major evolution of the legionary was under the reforms of the highly successful soldier and seven-time consul Gaius Marius at the beginning of the 1st century BC.
He did away with the manipular system completely and rebuilt the legions anew with cohorts of similarly-armed legionaries. His aim was for each legion to be a self-contained fighting force. Therefore, of the 6, men in each legion, 4, were now a standardised variant of the legionary.
This was based on the gladius and pilum-armed armed principes and hastati (though the terms were dropped), with the spear-armed triarii and supporting velites disappearing entirely. From now on, all fighting men in the legion were simply called legionaries, with the remaining 1, men being support staff.
The next military reformation was carried out by Augustus, covering every aspect of the armed forces of Rome.
His first move with the legions was to tackle the huge number he had inherited from the civil wars of which he emerged the victor, in total around He reduced this to 28 (this falling to 25 after Varus’ losses in Germany in AD 9), and the total would hover around 30 for the next years, for example 29 at the time of the accession of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus in AD
He then rationalised their organisation. From that point they comprised 5, men, organised into ten cohorts. Of these, the first had five centuries of men (later the Severan legio II Parthica’s first cohort had six such centuries), with the other cohorts having six centuries of 80 men. Additionally, the legion also featured auxiliary cavalry acting as dispatch riders and scouts, and support staff.
Marian/ Augustan armour
The defensive equipment of the Marian and Augustan legions was a natural evolution of their Camillan and Polybian forebears. In terms of the helmet, the traditional Republic Roman Montefortino type was still in use when Augustus became Emperor, though the mid-Republican Etrusco-Corinthian and Attic types had disappeared by then.
However two new types had appeared in the generation before Augustus, reflecting a Celtic influence following Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul (and following the earlier assimilation of the Celtic mail shirt).
These were the Coolus type with a round cap of bronze and small neck guard (which disappeared in the middle of the 1st century AD), and iron Port type with a deep neck guard, the latter named after the site type location of Port bei Nidau in Switzerland. This latter developed into the classic ‘Imperial’ Gallic helmet often associated with the Roman legionary of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, featuring an even larger neck guard.
A final ‘Imperial’ type was that originating in Italy, hence it being called Italic, a bronze compromise between the new designs of Celtic origin and the more traditional Roman types. All of these helmets featured prominent cheek guards (again of Gallic provenance) and often a reinforcing strip on the front of the cap to deflect downward sword slashes. Ear guards had been added by the AD 50s.
In terms of armour, the late Republic and early Principate legionaries continued to wear the ubiquitous lorica hamata chain mail short. However, from 9 BC a major change began to take place which was to see the emergence into popular legionary use of the armour most associated in the public mind with the Roman legionary.
This was the famous lorica segmentata banded iron cuirass, constructed of articulated iron plates and hoops.
Such armour appears, unusually, to have been a purely Roman innovation with no cultural influence from opponents or allies.
As time progressed, this complicated though highly effective armour was simplified for ease of use by the legionary. One example found at the principia (headquarters building) at the vexillation fortress of Newsteads (Roman Trimontium) in for instance features simple rivets to replace earlier bronze hinges, a single large girdle plate replacing the two previous ones and strong hooks replacing earlier and more complicated belt-buckle fastenings.
Simplification of this armour continued through to its demise in the later 3rd century AD. The lorica hamata continued to be used alongside it, as did the lorica squamata scale mail shirt. The latter was cheaper than chainmail but inferior in flexibility and protection.
Additionally, when fighting certain types of opponent (such as Dacians using the two handed falx slashing weapon) extra armour was fitted including articulated iron manicae arm guards, thigh guards and greaves.
Specific troop types within the legions were also often differentially equipped with armour when compared to the rank and file legionaries to mark them apart, with officers frequently shown wearing iron and bronze muscled cuirasses.
The defensive panoply of the Marian and Augustan legionary was completed with their shield, still the scutum though as time progressed this became squarer in design. In defence this allowed the legionaries to adopt a number of defensive formations, including the testudo. This featured interlocking shields providing full cover on all sides, including from above.
Such traditional legionary equipment remained in use throughout much of the Principate. By the late 2nd/ early 3rd centuries AD however, this was beginning to change.
This was largely a response to a change in the nature of their opponents. Previously, the legions had most often faced a similar infantry-heavy force (excepting the Parthians in the east), but were now tackling a multitude of threats, many of a differing nature which required a more flexible response.
This change is shown in real time on three of the monuments set up in Rome by three great warrior Emperors – the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the Arches of Septimius Severus and Constantine, with weapons considered first to provide context.
From the reign of Septimius Severus a great change began with the sword, the longer cavalry-style spatha beginning to replace the shorter gladius for all Roman foot soldiers. This was up to 80cm in length, although some of one metre-length have been identified. It seems likely the adoption of this weapon had its origins in a need for more reach to tackle armoured mounted opponents.
A similar change is also evident in the use of the pila, they gradually being replaced by a thrusting spear of between 2m and m in length in the same time period.
This change is visible actually taking place on the three monuments detailed above. Thus on the Column of Marcus Aurelius legionaries in classic lorica segmentata are mostly armed with pila, while on the Arches of Severus and Constantine they have been replaced by spears.
This was again a response to the experiences in fighting mounted opponents more frequently, as with the longer sword. In this regard, Rome had long engaged with Parthian heavy shock cavalry and supporting horse archers in the east, but in the Marcommanic Wars under Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus they also found themselves fighting against the Iazyges Sarmatian tribe who had a much higher proportion of mounted shock troops.
A legionary spear wall would therefore have made much more sense engaging such opponents than the use of pilum impact weapons.
This change is also evident in the defensive panoply. For example, as the Principate progressed, legionary helmets became increasingly substantial, with the Italic ‘Imperial’ type disappearing in the early 3rd century AD.
By this time many legionaries were being equipped with heavier, single bowl designs reinforced by cross-pieces and fitted with deep napes, meaning only a minimal T-shaped face opening. These provided exceptional levels of protection, especially against mounted opponents.
Not surprisingly, a change is also evident in the body armour of the legionary as the Principate approached its end. Thus on the Column of Marcus Aurelius most are wearing lorica segmentata, while on the Arch of Septimius Severus there is a much higher proportion wearing lorica hamata chain mail, this proportion increasing yet again the Arch of Constantine.
Finally, as the 2nd century AD progressed the traditional scutum began being replaced by a large flat (and sometimes slightly dished) oval shield, confusingly still called a scutum.
This new design was of simple plank construction, with stitched-on rawhide, and was strengthened with iron bars. The two types appear to have been used side by side for some time, with examples of both found at the fortified frontier trading town of Dura-Europos in Syria dating to AD
This transition is also very evident on the three monuments detailed above, with many of the large round shields featuring on the Severan arch, and even more on the Arch of Constantine.
Once again this change seems associated with the type of opponent more commonly being faced, the round shield perhaps more suited to dealing with a mounted threat. It certainly gave greater freedom of movement for the new swords and spears coming into use with their greater reach, and would also have been cheaper to produce.
To conclude, the above narrative arc shows how the defensive equipment of the legionary evolved over the centuries from the time of Tullius to that of Severus, reacting to the nature of each new threat faced and the Romans adopting military technology when it suited a need. Such flexibility in terms of the legionary’s defensive (and indeed offensive) panoply ensured that the legions were always best equipped to meet any future challenge.
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Dr Simon Elliott
Simon Elliott is an archaeologist and historian specialising in the Roman military. His PhD, at the University of Kent, focused on the presence of the latter in Britain during the Roman occupation.
He has an MA in War Studies from KCL and an MA in Archaeology from UCL. This feature is based on two of his recent books, Septimius Severus in Scotland: the Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots (Greenhill Books) and Roman Legionaries: Soldiers of Empire (Casemate).
The cover image of this article is from the fantastic Ancient Warfare magazine, Volume XII This volume talks about how control and use of the legions played a critical role in Octavian’s carefully orchestrated rise to power. Check it out here.
Huge thanks to Johnny Shumate and his fantastic illustrations!
Click here for Johnny’s website.
Johnny’s Etsy page, check it out here.
Huge thanks also to Greenhill Books, Cogito and Malay Archer (RTW2 Footage) for allowing us to use their content.
Cowan, R. “Imperial Roman Legionary AD – ”, Osprey Publishing (Oxford, ).
D’Amato, R., and Sumner, G. “Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier”, Frontline Books (Barnsley, ).
Fields, N. “Roman Republican Legionary BC”, Osprey Publishing (Oxford, ).
Pollard, N., and Berry, J. “The Complete Roman Legions”, Thames & Hudson (London, ).
Esposito, G. “The Late Roman Army”, Winged Hussar Publishing (Point Pleasant, NJ, ).
Author: Simon Elliott
Dr Simon Elliott is an historian and archaeologist who has written widely on Roman themes. His book Roman Legionaries was published by Casemate UK in July this year.
Ancient Roman military clothing
Military of the Roman Republic and Empire wore loosely regulated dress and armour. The contemporary concept of uniforms was not part of Roman culture and there were considerable differences in detail. Armour was not standardized and even that produced in state factories varied according to the province of origin. Likewise the Romans had no concept of obsolescence. Provided it remained serviceable, soldiers were free to use armour handed down by family money, buy armour from soldiers who had completed their service, or wear discontinued styles of armour if they preferred it to (or could not afford) the latest issue. Thus, it was common for legions to wear a mix of various styles that could cover a considerable time period.
Fragments of surviving clothing and wall paintings indicate that the basic tunic of the Roman soldier was of red or undyed (off-white) wool. Senior commanders are known to have worn white cloaks and plumes. The centurions who made up the long serving backbone of the legions were distinguished by transverse crests on their helmets, chest ornaments corresponding to modern medals, and the long cudgels that they carried.
Examples of items of Roman military personal armour included:
Other garments and equipment included:
- A tunic
- The baldric, a belt worn over one shoulder that is typically used to carry a weapon (usually a sword) or other implement such as a bugle or drum
- The balteus, the standard belt worn by the Roman legionary. It was probably used to tuck clothing into or to hold weapons.
- Braccae (trousers), popular among Roman legionaries stationed in cooler climates to the north of southern Italy
- Caligae, heavy-soled military shoes or sandals which were worn by Roman legionary soldiers and auxiliaries throughout the history of the Roman Republic and Empire.
- The focale, a scarf worn by the Roman legionary to protect the neck from chafing caused by constant contact with the soldier's armor
- The loculus, a satchel, carried by legionaries as a part of their sarcina (marching pack)
- The paludamentum, a cloak or cape fastened at one shoulder, worn by military commanders and (less often) by their troops
Ordinary soldiers wore a sagum instead of a paludamentum
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The Roman legions were the conquerors of the ancient world. They were disciplined and drilled, well led, and believed in their cause. They were also issued with equipment of a relatively standardised, high quality. The pilum (spear), pugio (dagger) and gladius (sword) were effective killing machines, and if you got past them, Roman soldiers were well protected.
The Romans used three types of body armour: a hooped arrangement called lorica segmentata; scaled metal plates called lorica squamata, and chain mail or lorica hamata.
Mail was durable and was used almost throughout Roman history. The hooped armour was expensive to produce and heavy; it was used from around the start of the Empire into the 4th century. Scale armour seems to have been used from the late Republican period for some classes of troops.
While the Roman army was marked for its uniformity of equipment, soldiers bought their own, so richer men and elite units would have the best gear.
1. Lorica Segmentata
Lorica segmentata was probably the most protective and most recognisable armour of the Roman period. It came in two semi-circular sections that were laced together to enclose the torso. Shoulder guards and breast and back plates added further protection.
It was made of iron hoops fixed to leather straps. Sometimes the iron plates were case hardened to present a front face of tougher mild steel. Hinges, tie-rings and buckles were made of brass.
Although big and heavy to wear, lorica segmentata packed up neatly. A padded undershirt could remove some of the discomfort.
Which troops used it is still unclear. It is regularly found, but contemporary illustrations suggest it may have been limited to the legions – the best heavy infantry.
Its abandonment is more likely due to its cost and high maintenance needs than any superior alternative, a man wrapped in lorica segmentata was well prepared for battle.
2. Lorica Squamata
Lorica squamata was a scale armour, looking like the skin of a fish.
Hundreds of thin scales made of iron or bronze were sewn to a fabric shirt. Some models have flat scales, some were curved, tin was added to the surface of some scales in some shirts, possibly as a decorative touch.
Reenactors wearing the lorica squamata – via Wikipedia.
The metal was rarely more than mm thick, it was light and flexible and the overlapping scale effect gave added strength.
A shirt of scale armour would be put on with side or rear lacing and reach to the mid-thigh.
3. Lorica Hamata
Lorica hamata chainmail. Image Credit: Greatbeagle / Commons.
Lorica hamata was chain mail, made of iron or bronze rings. It was in use from the Roman Republic to the Empire’s fall, and survived as a type through the Middle Ages.
The interlocking rings were of alternating types. A punched washer joined to a riveted ring of metal wire. They were 7 mm in diameter at their outside edge. Extra protection came from shoulder flaps.
Always great borrowers, the Romans may have first encountered mail used by their Celtic opponents from the third century BC.
Making a single shirt of 30, rings could take a couple of months. However, they lasted for decades and replaced the more expensive lorica segmentata at the end of the Empire.