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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

How To: Dress as a Roman soldier Part Three

Updated: Feb 18

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 detailed books and online resources available elsewhere.


In Part One we looked at the common clothing and accessories typically worn by Roman soldiers of the 1st to 2nd century AD and in Part Two, the armour they wore. Part Three addresses what weapons were typically carried in the period.


‘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 artefacts. 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 allow a full range of movement. Poorly fitting armour risks uncomfortable chafing at the minimum but 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.


Pugio (Dagger)


Many, but not necessarily all, Roman soldiers carried a dagger known as a pugio. Most likely this was used as a utility knife but it could also act as a sidearm. Generally, it had a large, leaf-shaped blade 18 to 28 cm long and 5 cm or more in width with a pronounced waist. A raised midrib ran the length of each side, either simply standing out from the face or defined by grooves on either side. Like other items of legionary equipment, the pugio underwent changes especially during the 1st century AD. The blade was made a little thinner, by about 3 mm, and the handle constructed in metal. Initially the tang was wide and flat, and the grip was riveted through it, as well as through the shoulders of the blade (see below).



Around AD 50, a rod tang was introduced, and the hilt was no longer riveted through the shoulders of the blade. Of itself this did not alter the pugio's appearance, but some of these later blades were narrower (under 3.5 cm wide), had little or no waist, and had reduced or vestigial midribs.


Throughout the period, the outline of the hilt remained roughly the same. It was made with two layers of horn, wood or bone sandwiching the tang, each overlaid with a thin metal plate. Often the hilt was decorated with inlaid silver. The hilt was 10 to 12 cm long overall, and the grip was quite narrow. Combined with an expansion or lump in the middle of the handle produced a very secure grip.


Gladius Hispaniensis (‘Spanish sword’)


Gladius is the general Latin word for ‘sword’ and as such does not relate to a specific design. In the Roman Republic, the term gladius Hispaniensis (‘Spanish sword’) referred (and still refers) specifically to the short sword, approximately 60 cm (24”) long, used by Roman legionaries as their primary weapon from the 3rd century BC. Several different better-known designs followed, the most widely recognised being the ‘Mainz’ pattern and the ‘Pompeii’ pattern (the names referring to where or how the canonical example was found). The ‘Mainz’ pattern, which had itself developed from the Hispaniensis, generally had wider, diamond-section blades of 50 to 75 cm (c. 20” to 30”) long, slightly waisted in profile, with a long tapering point. The ‘Mainz’ pattern seems to have entered service in the 1st century BC and continued in use until at least AD 40 and possibly beyond. A variation called the Fulham pattern (third from the left below) also had a long point but was only 5 cm (2") wide with straight edges that flared slightly at the hilt. The ‘Pompeii’ pattern gladii were simpler derivatives of the ‘Mainz’ type with a narrower diamond-section blade approximately 5 cm (2”) wide and 45 to 50 cm (18” to 20”) long. Its edges were parallel with a shorter, triangular shaped point. Overall, Pompeian pattern swords varied in length between 60 cm and 65 cm (24” to 26”) and weigh approximately 700 g (1.5 lb). The ‘Pompeii’ pattern was in service by the AD 50s, remaining in general use into the 2nd century AD. To confuse matters slightly, over the years the Pompeii pattern sword got longer, and these later versions were called semispathae or half-swords.



All of these blade types were double-edged with a flat diamond or lens cross-section that did not require fullers. From analysis, some surviving examples have low-carbon steel cores with high-carbon steel edges. Other blades had high-carbon steel layered over low-carbon steel cores, while some were low-carbon steel throughout.


Sword hilts comprised ‘a handguard, an octagonal-sectioned handgrip was usually made from a cow longbone, and then a pommel of slightly flattened ovoid appearance’ (Bishop and Coulston, 2006, 78). Handguards were similarly round or oval in plan when viewed from below. Both pommel and handguard were often made of wood, as the examples from Vindonissa (modern Windisch, Switzerland) show, but could be of bone or ivory. A thin brass plate may have been either set into the bottom of the guard, or flat against it, or simply not used. The blade’s tang typically projected through the hilt where it would be peened flat over a washer or small stud.


Legionaries wore their gladii on their right hips to facilitate drawing while remaining protected by their semi-cylindrical scuta (Latin: sing. scutum ‘shield’). Despite reservations, practical experimentation proves the relatively short length of both gladii and spathae (Latin: sing. spatha, ‘sword’) can be easily and quickly drawn from a scabbard (Latin: vagina). From the early 3rd century, legionaries and cavalrymen began to wear their swords on the left side, perhaps because the curved scutum had been abandoned and the gladius had been replaced by the spatha.


Like the term ‘gladius’, spatha could refer to any sword (in late Latin) but is most often associated with the longer-bladed weapons that were characteristic of the middle and late Empire. Roman cavalry was using these longer-bladed swords in the 1st century AD but by the late 2nd or early 3rd century, Roman infantry had also switched to carrying longer swords. They also changed from carrying javelins to carrying spears, which is the next subject.


Hastae (spears) and Pila (javelins)


Hasta (pl. hastae) is a Latin word generally referring to a thrusting spear. Hastae were carried by early Roman legionaries; in particular, they were carried by and gave their name to those Roman soldiers known as Hastati. However, during the Republican era, Hastati were re-armed with pila and gladii; only the Triarii retained their spears. A hasta was typically 1.8 m (6 ft) in length. The shaft was generally made from ash onto which a socketed iron spearhead was typically attached, although some early Republican hastae had bronze blades.


Although often used the word to describe all thrown javelins, the pilum (pl. pila) was a heavy javelin commonly used by the Roman army. Lighter, shorter javelins existed, such as those used by the Velites [1] and the early manipular legions [2], called verutum. Other types of javelins were adopted by the late Roman army, such as lancea and spiculum, which were heavily influenced by the weapons of Italic warriors.


From the surviving examples, it seems pila were generally somewhat shorter than 2 m (6 ft 7 in) long overall, consisting of a wooden shaft from which projected an iron shank about 7 mm (0.28 in) in diameter and 60 cm (23.6 in) long that ended in a pyramidal head of hardened iron. The iron shank was socketed or, more usually, widened to a flat tang which was rivetted into a wooden block. Pila usually weighed between 1 and 2.5 kg (2.2 and 5 lb), although versions produced during the Imperial period could be somewhat lighter.


Pila were designed as ‘penetrators’ [3] to pierce both shield and armour, wounding the wearer. If a pilum pierced or became embedded in a shield, its design of thin shank combined with a pyramidal iron head meant the pilum could not be easily removed. From experiment, the whole pilum weighs down the enemy's shield reducing its effectiveness and prevents it from being immediately re-used. The shield-bearer would most likely be forced to ditch the encumbered shield thereby losing a significant measure of protection.


Some commentators still state with conviction that the iron shank would ‘bend upon impact’, but if one takes a little time to contemplate the phrase, it is a nonsense. If the iron shank ‘bent on impact’, then it simply would not perform its penetrator job. As Dr Mike Bishop writes, pila are ‘unlikely to bend under their own weight when thrown and striking a target or ground’ (Bishop, 2017, ). Many types of pila did not bend at all, and there are examples where the whole shank was hardened making the weapon highly suited to use in a close-quarter melee (Cowan, 2003, 25-26). Moreover, a sturdy pilum that does not bend matches well with the historical Roman sources stating it was often used as a stabbing spear [4]. One example is in ‘Array against the Alans’ where Arrian writes that the first four ranks of the formation should use their pila like spearmen, while the rest should use them like javelins [5] (van Dorst, 2002).


Scutum (Shield)



The scutum (pl. scuta) was adopted by the Romans when, starting around the fourth century BC, they switched from the Greek inspired hoplite phalanx to a manipular army [2]. In the former, the soldiers carried a round shield, much like the Greek aspis, which the Romans called a clipeus, while in the latter they used the scutum. At the time of the Roman Republic shields were large, oblong and convex. Over time it seems the design was shortened by squaring the top and bottom edges. These semi-cylindrical shields are often referred to as ‘Augustan’, a reference to the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 BC). By the time of the Roman invasion of Britain, both this style of scutum and a newer rectangular version with squared edges all round were in service. The latter is the style most popularly equated with Roman legionaries, but it was not the only kind of shield the Romans used. Depending on the role of the soldier who carried it, examples of oval, circular and rectangular shaped shields can be identified in the archaeological record. The parma, for example, was a circular shield with a diameter of approximately three Roman feet used in the mid-Republic by the lowest class division of the army - the Velites [1]. When later the parma was widely replaced by the scutum, Signiferi (standard bearers) appear to have retained its use since to carry a signum (standard) and a large infantry scutum was impractical.


Roman shields were made by gluing multiple strips of wood together to create a form of ‘plywood’. The scutum was light enough to be held in one hand. A centrally positioned hole was cut in the shield for the hand to grip a horizontal handle. The hole was protected by a metal boss (Latin: umbo). The outside surface was covered in a combination of woollen felt and linen or leather; the latter providing waterproofing. It is apparent that shields were decorated, with the exterior face painted possibly using different colours to aid the recognition of cohorts in the confusion of battle. Specific shield designs are known to have existed as they are depicted in carved reliefs and art, but few of the surviving designs can be attributed to named units. One example can be identified, however. The grave stela of Gnaeus Museus (see below) clearly shows a small oval shield in the bottom left corner with a distinctive design incorporating what has been identified as Jupiter's thunderbolts (Latin: fulmen) - a popular motif - and the wings of Victory [6]. The tombstone’s inscription usefully informs us that Gnaeus was an ‘Eagle bearer’ Latin: aquilifer) who served in the 14th Legion (Legio XIIII Gemina). So, even though we cannot be 100% certain, it is not unreasonable to connect this specific design with said legion.

 

References:


Bishop, M.C., (2002), ‘Lorica Segmentata Volume I: A Handbook of Articulated Roman Plate Armour’, JRMES Monograph 1, Great Britain: The Armatvra Press.


Bishop, M.C., (2017), ‘The Pilum: The Roman Heavy Javelin’, Oxford: Osprey Publishing.


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


Cowan, R., (2003), ‘Equipment’, Roman legionary: 58 BC - AD 69, Oxford: Osprey Publishing.


Robinson, H.R., (1975), ‘The Armour of Imperial Rome’, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

van Dorst, S., (2002), ’Arrian's Array against the Alans’, Available online (accessed January 8th, 2023).


Endnotes:


1. Though they still owned land, the Velites (light infantry) of the Republican army comprised the unreliable and otherwise poor combatants of the original fifth class of the earlier Greek-style phalanx. In his ‘Rise of the Roman Empire’, the Greek author Polybius, from whom we get our best description of the Roman army of the period, states that the velites were usually the youngest of the soldiers. They were skirmishers armed with a short sword (gladius) and several javelins. They wore light armour, which usually consisted of little more than greaves (ocrea) on the legs and a bronze helmet and carried-a basic round shield or clipeus.


2. After 331 BC the internal organisation of the Roman legion became more sophisticated. The developments from the classic phalanx to the ‘manipular’ system also allowed important tactical innovations. Most significantly, for the first time, the classes of soldiers who comprised the legions were based on experience and age rather than wealth, with standard weapons and equipment issued by the state. In the middle years of the Republic, the Roman army was organised into three lines, the Hastatii, the Principes, and the Triarii. Each of these three lines was subdivided into maniples of 120, 120 and 60 men, respectively. A full legion, therefore, fielded about 3,000 men.


3. In military terms a ‘penetrator’ is hard alloy projectile that harnesses kinetic energy to pierce the armour of tanks and fortifications as opposed to one that carries an explosive charge or another chemical or biological substance.


4. Caesar writes in his ‘Gallic Wars’ that his troops used their pila as spears or pikes during the Siege of Alesia. While in the ‘Life of Pompey’ and ‘Life of Antony’, Plutarch describes Caesar's men at Pharsalus jabbing upwards at the faces of Pompey's cavalry with their javelins and Marc Antony's men stabbing at Parthian cavalry with theirs.


5. Arrian's Array against the Alans: ‘And the front four ranks of the formation must be of spearmen, whose spearpoints end in thin iron shanks. And the foremost of them should hold them at the ready, in order that when the enemies come near them, they can thrust the iron points of the spears at the breast of the horses in particular. Those standing in second, third and fourth rank of the formation must hold their spears ready for thrusting if possible, wounding the horses and killing the horsemen and put the rider out of action with the spear stuck in their heavy body armour and the iron point bent because of the softness. The following ranks should be of the javelineers.’


6. In ancient Roman religion Victoria was the deified personification of victory. She first appears during the first Punic War, seemingly as a Romanised re-naming of Nike, the Greek version. Winged figures, very often in pairs, representing victory and referred to as ‘winged victories’, are common in Roman iconography and represent the ‘spirit of victory’ rather than a full-blown deity.

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