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How To: Dress as a Roman soldier Part One

Updated: Feb 17

Where to start? If we accept that Rome was founded in 753 BC and that the eastern half of the Empire did not collapse until Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans in AD 1453, then we have just over 2,200 years from which to choose how to dress. Unsurprisingly, in that length of time military fashions changed quite noticeably from the early sleeveless tunics to the later long-sleeved versions worn in combination with trousers. One suspects, however, that most people will be familiar with the Roman soldier of the 1st to 2nd century AD, so this popular image will be our focus.


This ‘How To:’ series is aimed at the general reader or an individual wishing to portray a Roman legionary or auxiliary as accurately as our current knowledge allows. It is not intended to be an academic exploration of all the different permutations of Roman helmets, armour, swords and so on that have been identified and catalogued in the archaeological record. There are far more comprehensive studies, detailed books and online resources available elsewhere.


With that in mind, Part One of this ‘How To:’ guide looks at the clothing and accessories commonly worn by Roman soldiers. It will not be the definitive account as fashions tend to vary considerably over time, across the provinces of the Empire, the soldier’s needs and individual whim. There are, however, some elements that could be considered the key to creating a reasonably accurate impression of a soldier. What follows, then, is based on the available evidence wherever possible, but it also includes findings from practical experimentation in designing, making and most importantly the wearing, often for lengthy periods, of reproduction clothing.


‘Caveat emptor’ (Buyer beware) There are many online sources for reproduction historical equipment, arms and armour. Some retailers offer far superior products than others, but clearly better quality comes at a higher cost. Bespoke makers ought to be the buyer’s first recourse, if their budget permits, as these skilled artisans take pride in accurately reproducing museum quality artifacts. Body armour is definitely one area where custom-made rather than ‘off-the-shelf’ is preferable. If you are going to be encased in metal for any extended period, it needs to fit and articulate well to mitigate the effects of the armour’s weight and permit a full range of movement. Poorly fitting armour risks uncomfortable chafing at the minimum, but it could cause actual physical harm. Having your armour made-to-measure or at least adjusted to fit well after purchase by a competent armourer is highly recommended. Even more importantly, from practical experience obtaining well-fitting footwear is essential for comfort. Remember you may be on your feet all day so although it is tempting to buy some shiny armour or a new sword, we would strongly advise spending money on good quality boots or shoes first.


Underwear


A letter discovered at Vindolanda Roman Fort, tablet 346, sent to a soldier probably from his home in Batavia [1] refers to socks (udones), underpants (subligaria) and sandals (soleae) being dispatched to him. Other tablets preserved from the excavations at the fort also reference underwear so we can be fairly confident that, just like us, Romans wore such items. What form this took is a little harder to discern, however. It is uncertain whether Roman underwear was a tailored garment or a more straightforward loincloth, or breechcloth (breechclout). Even today the latter remains one of the simplest forms of dress, and in some cases the only garment worn by some. Evidence from the clothing Ötzi the Iceman was discovered wearing revealed that, in Europe around 2000 BC, some men wore leather breechcloths. In Ötzi’s case it was made from narrow strips of sheep hide stitched together to produce a garment, originally a 100 cm x 33 cm, that was worn between the legs and fastened with the belt (see right).


From Ötzi’s simple loincloth developed more encompassing garments such as the one shown below left in a carved relief of ancient Egyptian farmers or labourers. This form of underwear is relatively easy to recreate requiring a T-shaped piece of cloth. The width needs to be enough that it can be tied round the waistline to form a ‘belt’. Likewise, a sufficiently long length of material, forming a ‘tail’, is drawn between the legs, from back to front, and looped through the ‘belt’ to secure it in place. The result is somewhat like a pair of shorts with an apron of cloth at the front (see below right).



From the Vindolanda Tablets we know Romans wore a type of loincloth known as a subligaculum. While we cannot be certain of its design, it is highly likely that such garments were very similar to the Egyptian versions.


Tunics


The tunica (pl: tunicae) is the base garment worn by both men and women and is synonymous with the Greek khiton described in an earlier post [1]. As such the Roman soldier’s tunic is also a rectangular piece of cloth folded laterally to form a tube. It seems, however, that the Romans preferred the garment sewn at the shoulders and sewn from the underarm to the hem.


It is worth noting at this point that there is no reason why seams that are not immediately visible cannot be machine stitched. There are some people for whom this is an anathema as it is ‘not historically accurate’. We would argue that careful use of machine stitching is merely a practical measure (we live in the 21st century after all and are not actually ancient Romans) providing any visible seams, such as those in collars, sleeves and hems, are hand sewn.


The Roman soldier’s tunic can be sleeveless but was more likely to have short-sleeves. Longer, wrist-length sleeves appeared from about the mid-2nd century AD onward (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 184). Significantly, the tunics worn by Roman soldiers were ‘distinctive, for it instantly marked out the wearer as soldier simply by the way it was worn: shorter than the everyday tunics of ordinary citizens’ (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 110). The hemline should hang just above the knee (we suggest two or three finger widths above) which allowed greater freedom of movement in exercise, manual labour and in warfare.


Warming wool Most Roman tunicae and outer garments were made from wool, whether lightweight fine weaves or heavier, coarser ones. Against the skin, however, might be worn a linen undergarment (‘subuclas’), which would be considerably more comfortable and easier to clean and dry than wool. But for warmth, harder wearing wool was, and remains, a sensible choice. Indeed, to stay warm, Romans might wear layers of clothing. The Emperor Augustus, for example, is said to have routinely worn no less than four tunics at a time on cold days, so it is not unreasonable to assume others did something similar. Likewise, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that soldiers may have purchased a locally made long sleeved tunic to be worn under their Roman style ones.


Unless the natural sheep’s fleece is preferred, perhaps for reasons of cost which would limit the available colours to creamy white, brown, or black/grey, then the woven wool cloth was dyed. The evidence suggests that the ancients liked colourful clothing much as we do today, but dyes were also a status marker. The dying of wool requires that it be degreased before entering the dye bath. This process, usually performed before spinning, removed the wool’s natural lanolin by immersing it in stale urine which, although a waste product, has the required ammonia content to break down the fats, was relatively cheap, and was easy to collect. Once degreased, the wool becomes much easier to dye, but the natural waterproofing provided by the lanolin is lost.


The actual dyed colour of the Roman soldier’s tunic is uncertain. Some argue that red was the colour associated with God of war, Mars, and thus would have been the most appropriate colour for soldiers. On the face of it this does make sense for a people who were highly superstitious, and especially so for soldiers for whom any divine advantage to keep themselves alive and healthy was worth taking. Yet our sources, frescoes, mosaics, statues, etc. reveal several other colours may have been worn, including white, blue, green, yellow, and so on. Graham Sumner has written a very useful summary of the evidence for dyes in the Roman period (Sumner, 2009, 112-118) and an entire chapter listing the ‘Evidence for the colour of military clothing’ (Sumner, 2009, Chapter 5). What we can say is that a standardised or uniform colour was probably not adopted by the Roman military. Moreover, vast quantities of woollen cloth would have been needed, and given that dyeing would have added an extra cost to procurement then, on the balance of probabilities, Roman soldiers most likely wore a tunic that was the colour of the undyed natural wool or off-white.


To recreate a tunica is relatively simple for any aspiring tailor. For our purposes, the basic garment is a rectangular piece of cloth whose width is roughly the distance from elbow to elbow, with a length that places the bottom hemline at mid-calf level. When gathered about the waist with a simple cord or tie (not with a military belt known as a balteus or cingulum militare), the excess material can be pulled up and bloused over the belt to achieve the desired length above the knees. As previously mentioned, the shortened length is symbolic of being a soldier who would never wear their tunics with the hemline at or below knee height. One of ‘Augustus’ punishments for wayward soldiers recorded by the Roman biographer Suetonius was that they should be made to stand outside the headquarters building of a legionary base without a belt, ‘simultaneously depriving them of their two key indicators of status (weapons belt and short tunic)’ (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 110).


In the diagram below, the head hole is formed between D-E which, from experience, needs to be at least 25 cm to 30 cm wide. When folded in half, and if you decide to sew the shoulders together between A-D and E-F, then the cloth must be cut at F-G to allow the right arm to pass through. If you prefer to simply pin the garment at the shoulders with brooches at D-D and E-E, then the cloth would fall on each side and cutting the F-G armhole would not be necessary [2]. In this instance the rectangle of cloth needs to be approximately 2 m long and at least 3 m wide (once folded it will be 1.5 m wide).


An alternative design, shown below left, is made from two pieces of cloth sewn at the shoulders and sides (the sewn seams are marked in red). Width wise it should extend from elbow to elbow and as such produces a voluminous garment. Like the Romans we should not be overly concerned with the loose fit or bulky nature of tunics. In warmer climes, such as around the Mediterranean Sea, loose fitting garments help air circulate round the body as an aid to cooling. Moreover, a large tunic, when unbelted, may have doubled as a form of ‘sleeping bag’ for men living in the field on campaign.



Although sleeveless, the excess width of the first two voluminous designs do form rudimentary sleeves when worn under armour. If actual sleeves are preferred, then a less bulky tunic may be made from the same size piece of material. In this third version above middle, the cloth is cut to remove some of the excess material and shaped to form a baggy t-shirt with integral sleeves.


A fourth option is to add separate sleeves as this adaptation allows for variation in sleeve length and fullness. As before the aim is to end up with a baggy t-shirt loose enough to allow freedom of movement above right. For this ‘sleeved tunic’, cut two identically sized pieces of cloth to form the front and back panels. Cut two further pieces of cloth, shown below left, approximately 250 mm long and 150 mm wide [3] to make the short sleeves. It is easiest to join the tunic at the shoulders first, as shown below right, leaving sufficient room for your head to pass through. As mentioned above, the head hole needs to be at least 25 cm to 30 cm wide.



The next step is to attach the sleeves (below left) before sewing the sleeve and side seams (below right).



These tunic styles are ideal for portraying legionary soldiers, but if creating an auxiliary soldier figure (such as serving in the Batavian or Tungrian auxilia), then a more Germanic style tunic may be in order. Such tunics are narrower in body width and fitted with long, wrist-length sleeves. They are also shorter such that when unbelted the bottom hem only reaches knee height.


Tunics should be belted at the waist. A simple thong or cloth tape will suffice. Excess material can be pulled up and bloused over the belt to achieve the desired length.


Scarves


Roman soldiers, both legionary and auxiliary, are shown wearing focalia (‘scarves’, sing. focali) about their necks on the Trajan’s Column reliefs. In the example shown right, the legionary soldiers seem to be wearing scarves tucked into their banded armour, while the auxiliaries are shown with theirs clearly visible. In the absence of any definitively identifiable, surviving examples, we can only speculate that scarves were of either wool or linen. Moreover, as their portrayal on sculptural reliefs like Trajan’s Column in Rome (see below) and the Adamklissi Metopes in Romania are almost invariably depicted beneath armour, what shape scarves took is equally unknown. Some re-enactors favour a triangular shape to better fit under armour, but this is probably incorrect; a more traditional long strip of cloth will work instead. Despite some arguments to the contrary, Nic Field posits that scarves were worn by soldiers to protect the neck from chafing by the armour (Fields, 2009, 25; cf. Sumner, 2002, 37). From personal experience a focali does indeed perform this function perfectly, but they also act as sweat cloth (Lat. sudarium), an item of clothing that modern soldiers value today.



Cummerbunds


Waist sashes or cummerbunds (fascia ventralis) seem to have been worn by many soldiers. Representational evidence from the tombstones of P. Flavoleus Cordus of Legio XIIII Gemina and Daverzus from Cohors IIII Delmatarum, for example, appear to indicate that a waist sash was worn beneath the military belt (Sumner, 2009,166-167). This may have been to protect the tunic from any sharp edges on the back of the belt, or possibly to support the lumber region of the back when wearing armour. Pliny the Elder records waist sashes (ventralia) were made of rough wool (Historia Naturalis, VIII, lxxiii, 193).


To recreate ventralia involves a good deal of guess work. The author’s version, shown right, is 30 cm wide, 2 m long piece of woollen cloth that is wrapped about the waist and secured by tucking the free end into the sash. The whole thing is further held in place once the military belt is buckled on. The folds formed above the belt can be used to store a money pouch or similar.

Trousers


Contrary to the popular image Romans wore trousers. They first appear as part of the Roman army’s ‘uniform’ on the tombstones of auxiliary soldiers, especially cavalrymen, campaigning in northern Europe. Indeed, as highlighted above, auxiliaries are distinguished on Trajan’s Column from their legionary counterparts by the wearing of close-fitting ¾ length trousers (feminalia). While it could be argued that this is simply an artistic convention enabling the viewer to distinguish non-citizen auxiliaries from citizen legionaries, the fashion for wearing trousers seems to have been adopted by legionary infantry who are shown wearing similar garments on the Adamklissi metopes (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 111). It seems Roman soldiers expediently adopted the local fashion to supplement their trusted cloaks, hats and scarves in cooler northern climes.


Ankle-length trousers (bracae) were worn by tribesmen in NW Europe (Germans, Gauls, Britons, etc.) and by those further East such as the Persians or their successors, the Parthians. It seems reasonable to presume that those auxiliaries recruited into the Roman army from the northern Iron Age tribes and from the eastern provinces might continue to wear such garments, although definitive evidence is currently lacking.


There are two schools of thought regarding the clothing of auxiliary troops wore. The first argues for auxilia wearing clothing with which they were most familiar, namely long-sleeve tunics and bracae. This argument is one based as much on ‘tradition’ as it is on the men being suitably attired for the weather conditions encountered in more northern parts of Europe. The second argument holds that, keen to prove their loyalty and be fully integrated (becoming ‘Romanised’) into Roman ideals, auxilia would have dressed as other Mediterranean Romans. Either argument has some validity, but neither can be proven with any certainty. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Following the soldier’s maxim of ‘any fool can be cold and wet’, Romans most likely wore whatever clothing suited their needs at a given time and place.


Socks


Despite their apparent rarity in the sculptural record, we know that socks (udones) were common. They are in fact mentioned in Vindolanda tablet 346 (see above) and are probably shown on the Cancalleria reliefs in Rome. Civilian socks may have been brightly coloured to emphasize the intricate openwork on pierced leather shoes. Soldier’s socks were probably more practical.


Socks could be made one of three ways: a 'quasi triangular' piece of cloth sewn up either side, a weaving method somewhat similar to crochet known as 'sprang' [4], or as a foot wrap. Examples of the first two styles have survived, with the cloth type surviving not only from Vindolanda but also from a series of waterlogged graves in Gaul. Likewise, the sprang type is known from examples recovered from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt dated to the 2nd century AD (right). The Egyptian examples were brightly striped and incorporated a separate toe to accommodate thong type sandals.


The socks shown on the Cancalleria reliefs, if indeed that is what they are, appear to be a tube of material or possibly sprang work, presumably woollen, covering the foot while leaving the toes and ankle exposed. The distinctive cut-out at the heel works to stop the sock ruckling uncomfortably beneath the sole or at the ankle.


Leg wraps and bindings


Hosea, a general term for any form of leg covering, are known to have been worn by Romans in the absence of trousers. One form, leg wraps, are rectangular pieces of cloth which, as their name suggests, are wrapped around the lower leg. They can be tied in place using warp threads (from the weaving process) that have been deliberately left long and then plaited to form an integral tie rather than one sewn on. While the technique copies that used by ancient weavers for decorative purposes, weft threads extending through the selvedge, or heading band, to make a fastening will inevitably part company with the main body of the cloth. Using a separate binding strip is one solution for longer term (yearly) use. Leg wraps probably had a Germanic origin but would almost certainly have been used by Roman soldiers in Britain, particularly by those men serving in legions previously stationed in Germany.


In contrast, bandage-like leg bindings worn by Romans resemble the puttees worn by late 19th and early 20th century soldiers. Such bindings seem to be native to the Italians and are commonly seen in contemporary depictions. They are not only a good way of keeping the lower extremities warm, but also offer protection from rough undergrowth and provide support to the muscles of the leg. Indeed, the latter may have been the primary reason for their use, but it would also make sense to use leg bindings as cold weather clothing.


Both of these items, leg wraps and leg bindings, were probably known as fascia (Latin for ‘a band, bandage, swathe’) and when combined with socks provide excellent cold-weather protection. Fascia and udones (socks) may have been standard army issue as one papyrus recovered from Masada lists these items, with other clothing, among the deductions from a soldier’s pay.


Footwear


From the extensive collection of recovered and preserved Roman period shoes housed in the Vindolanda Museum collection, Roman footwear ranged from wooden ‘clogs’ to beautifully decorated and pierced leather shoes. Unsurprisingly there is also a large variety of footwear depicted in ancient Roman art and sculpture ranging in styles from soleae, sandals held in place by a leather thong or tongue between the toes, to calcea that enclosed more of the foot. Ankle and calf-height boots are also shown, as are caligae famously worn by soldiers. The subject of footwear probably deserves a separate article but if you are looking for a simple, cheap style of shoe then choose carbatina. These featured soles and uppers cut from one-piece of leather. Loops cut around the leather’s edges allowed laces to pass through and draw the uppers together about the foot.


Roman military footwear of the Republic to the mid-2nd century was distinctive and well-known from our sources (literary, representational, and archaeological evidence). Known as caligae, each boot of vegetable-tanned ox or cow hide was made in three main pieces, namely the upper, the sole and an insole which were clenched with hobnails arranged in patterns (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 111-113). The uppers were pierced with openwork designs to produce extremely functional footwear. The openwork allows good ventilation, and the cut outs usefully remove leather on those parts of the boot that might rub (toe joints, ankle, etc.). The sandal-like design also allows water to escape the boot when fording streams, rivers and so on, and the foot to air dry as the soldier continues walking. Caligae were laced through the end of the openwork straps. This configuration permits the boot to be adjusted to fit the wearer comfortably and allows the wearing of socks or foot wraps for warmth (or added protection).


Caligae found on Roman sites, such as Vindolanda, seldom show signs of repair. From archaeological evidence, it seems boots were thrown away once the hobnails had worn down or had started to wear through the insole thereby becoming uncomfortable.


Cloaks


While no longer popular, one outer garment has a proven track record in keeping people warm and dry throughout the ages - the cloak. The term ‘cloak’, however, covers a wide variety of items from the Roman period. Exploiting their natural waterproofing properties, the warmest of these would have been the:


  • Gausapa, a very warm, waterproof, felt cloak made from goats’ wool that was introduced in the mid-first century AD. As it was felted, it would have been practically windproof and by nearly reaching the floor, would have been just the job for those ‘fortunate’ to have been sent to Britain or the German frontier.



  • Cilicium, another very warm goat’s hair cloak beloved of the Emperor Augustus who, as previously mentioned, ‘felt the cold’.



  • Cucullus and Bardocucullus, both of which are loan words for a hood or possibly a hooded cape or cloak. The Bardocucullus was a very thick, heavy version of the Cucullus that retained much of its natural oils thus making it practically waterproof. There is evidence that these garments could be of leather instead of heavy wool or felt. Whether the Cucullus or Bardocucullus varied in style or cut from those garments described as the ‘short cape’ and the ‘Gallic cape’ is unclear; possibly they did not. The early 3rd century AD stone carving pictured of three Genii Cucullati [5] was found in a shrine in the extra-mural settlement (vicus) at Housesteads Roman Fort (Vercovicium). Each figure wears, as the name suggests, a cucullus but they could also be sporting the Birrus Britannicus.



  • Birrus Britainicus was also a long, deeply hooded, cape or cloak but distinctive from similar garments by being sewn together at the front from the breastbone to the navel. The gap at the neck above the breastbone was filled with a triangular fillet of material that may have been buttoned or pinned in place. This was an expensive garment in some places (according to the Edict of Diocletian examples might cost 5.000 denarii), but slave wear in other locations. The Edict of Diocletian in AD 301 specifically notes the British origin of this style of cloak; it may have originated around Venta (Winchester).



In a military context, two sorts of cloaks seem to have been common amongst the general soldiery, namely the paenula (pl. paenulae) and the sagum (pl. saga). These cloaks, especially saga, could be noticeably big and heavy, and consequently warm. In the case of the paenula, it could also feature a hood. Literary references reveal there were also under-cloaks (subpaenulae), and at least one of the Rhineland stelae seems to show something which looks like shoulder doubling on the inside of the cloak. Military cloaks, however, were not practical to wear all the time, so they represent only one type of cold weather protection used by soldiers.


Hats


From frescoes and mosaics, we know the Romans wore wide-brimmed hats to shade the face in sunny weather so it stands to reason that they probably would have worn hats in cold weather. The former, like those worn by agricultural workers in some mosaics and statuettes, are often coloured yellow almost certainly to represent straw. Such brimmed hats could just as easily have been made from warmer and more waterproof materials such as felt and leather, however.


It is therefore possible that hats worn in winter resembled the brimmed hats worn in sunnier weather, or they were one and the same. Depictions on Greek vases often show travellers wearing high boots (or shoes and lower leg coverings) and nearly always these characters are wearing a hat and cloak. Given that this clothing seems designed for inclement weather, it is most likely that any brimmed hat shown was not made of straw but of felt or leather to better resist the cold and rain. The wearing of such hats might also explain statement by Vegetius that soldiers in earlier times had worn heavy leather hats. It is unlikely, however, that hats were issued to soldiers, or indeed permitted by military regulations, but as a private purchase they may have been tolerated. For the most part, soldiers probably relied on their hooded cloaks to keep heads warm and dry. But where a cloak is impractical, it has been suggested that soldiers may have worn their helmet linings as hats. As some of these linings appear to have been glued into their helmets, this cannot have been the case all the time (if it at all).


Next...


Part One of this ‘How To:’ guide has examined the archetypal clothing and accessories commonly worn by Roman soldiers in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. In Part Two we will investigate the more expensive options for recreating the Legionary or Auxiliary look - body armour and helmets.

 

References:


Bishop, M.C. & Coulston, J.C.N., (2006), ‘Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome’, Oxford: Oxbow Books.


Nic Fields, N., (2009), ‘The Roman Army of the Principate 27 BC-AD 117’, Oxford: Osprey Publishing.


Sebesta, J.L. & Bonfante, L. (eds), (2001), ‘The World of Roman Costume’, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.


Sumner, G., (2002), ‘Roman Military Clothing 100 BC - AD 200’, Oxford: Osprey Publishing.


Sumner, G., (2009), ‘Roman Military Dress’, Stroud: The History Press.


Endnotes:


1. The Greek khiton and Roman tunica are interchangeable terms to describe essentially the same garment.


2. In other words the arms pass through the gaps A-D and E-F.


3. Allow extra length and width for hemming while adjusting the overall sizing to meet individual requirements.


4. Sprang is an ancient method of constructing fabric that preserves its natural elasticity. While similar in appearance to netting, sprang differs in that it is constructed entirely from warp threads. Archaeological evidence indicates that sprang predates knitting. The two needlework forms bear a visible resemblance, and serve similar functions, yet require different production techniques.


5. The Genii Cucullati are mysterious figures who appear in religious sculpture across the Romano-Celtic region from Britain to Pannonia. In Britain they tend to be found in a triple deity form. Genius means ‘a spirit’, while the ‘cucullus’ is a type of hood; the Genii Cucullati are literally ‘hooded spirits’.

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