How To: Dress as a Roman soldier Part Two
Updated: Jun 17
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 clothing and accessories commonly worn by Roman soldiers of the 1st to 2nd century AD. In Part Two the focus shifts to body armour and helmets.
‘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.
There are four principal types of body armour worn by the Roman military, namely the muscle cuirass (lorica musculata), mail shirts (lorica hamata), scale shirts (lorica squamata), and the iconic articulated plate armour whose Latin name is uncertain but for convenience historians call 'lorica segmentata' (or 'lorica laminata'). A fifth style, lorica plumata, is also included but it could be argued that this is a derivative of lorica squamata rather than a distinct type.
Lorica Musculata (Muscle cuirass)
Lorica musculata is a type of cuirass made to fit the wearer's torso and designed to mimic an idealised male human physique. It first appears in late Archaic Greece and became widespread throughout the 5th and 4th centuries BC. This type of cuirass is commonly depicted in Greek and Roman art, where it is worn by generals, emperors, and deities at times when soldiers used other types of armour. In Roman sculpture, the muscle cuirass is often highly ornamented with mythological scenes, yet archaeological finds of relatively unadorned cuirasses, together with their depiction by artists in military scenes, indicate that simpler versions were probably worn in combat.
Despite the ubiquitous ‘Hollywood’ leather versions, and consequently the popular belief that muscle cuirasses were made of leather, this is no longer thought to be the case. A moulded leather cuirass would have had to be very thick and rigid to provide any defensive qualities (Robinson, 1975, 147). Cuirasses hammered out of two sheets of metal, originally bronze and later iron, to produce separate breast and backplates offers far superior defence. When fastened together the two pieces form a high-waisted or hip length protective shell about the torso. The anatomical effect was most likely achieved by repoussé, that is being shaped or ornamented with patterns in relief by hammering or pressing on the reverse side. The two halves of the cuirass were secured on each side by two hinge-like fasteners, or a pair of rings joined by ties (Robinson, 1975, 149). Shoulder straps hinged to the upper edges of the backplate and tied down to rings on the breast as shown below left.
Robinson suggests that this cuirass type was probably worn almost exclusively by emperors and top-ranking military leaders as a symbol of Roman might and sovereignty (Robinson, 1975, 147). He and others also propose muscle cuirasses were adopted and worn by members of the Praetorian Guard for ceremonial occasions as late as the middle of the 2nd century AD. This proposition is largely based on the famous Praetorian relief in the Musee du Louvre, Paris (see above centre). Furthermore, a centurion is shown wearing muscle cuirass on the base of the column of Antoninus Pius now in the Vatican Museum. From the archaeological record the only examples of metal muscle cuirasses to have survived are Etruscan ones (see above right) dating from 5th to the 3rd century BC (Robinson, 1975, 147). These rare survivors are fundamental in revealing how this form of body armour made and fastened.
Lorica hamata (Mail armour)
Lorica hamata (also called Lorica Gallica by the Romans) is a type of flexible mail armour, commonly called ‘chainmail’ or sometimes ‘ring mail’, that was used by Roman soldiers from at least the 3rd century BC Republic until the Empire’s demise. The name Lorica hamata is derived from the Latin hamatus (hooked) itself from hamus meaning ‘hook’ since it is made of iron rings linked, or ‘hooked’, to one another. A shirt of mail is made of thousands of metal rings, typically iron, joined so that each individual ring is linked to at least four others. The rings can be solid ‘washer’ types punched from a sheet of metal or made from wire whose open ends were either welded or rivetted together . In this case, four open-ended rings are linked to a closed ring (either welded or rivetted shut) before they too are closed with rivets. Rows of additional rings are added using the same technique to produce a full shirt of mail.
Mail is an ideal protective layer against slashing cuts from bladed weapons. It is less effective against concussive blows resulting in blunt force trauma or, in certain cases, penetrative thrusts that can split the rings open. To protect against injury, some form of under-armour, possibly known as subarmalis (a modern Latinised term), is presumed to have been worn. Whether this was of leather or layers of bonded cloth much like a Mediæval gambeson is not known for certain. Likewise, we cannot be sure that the mail shirt was or was not attached to a protective lining. Practical experimentation does suggest that additional padding is highly beneficial for cushioning blows, offering further layers to resist cuts or piercing attacks, and to prevent rings being driven into the wearer’s body. In the archaeological examples of this form of body protection, however, the metalwork often survives but rarely does any organic material such as leather or cloth.
Roman designs clearly copied the earlier Greek style of body armour that historians call a ‘linothorax’, a modern term derived from ‘lino’ for linen and ‘thorax’ meaning chest or torso. The mail corselet protected the upper body and vital organs, while shoulder doubling gave extra protection against downward cuts and provided a means to securely fasten the shirt. If Roman mail shirts did copy earlier Greek designs and had a leather or padded cloth liner, then they may well have been opened and fastened (probably) on the left, or shield protected, side to ease putting on or taking off . Although not shown in the artist rendering of a Republican Hastatus (right), the padded garment beneath mail shirts may have had pteryges (‘wings’) at the shoulders to protect the upper arm and attached below the waist to protect the groin. Whether pteryges were made of leather or stiffened linen is unknown (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 63), although the latter is entirely possible.
Modern historians believe that mail armour was invented or developed by the Iron Age people of northern Europe (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 63). Soldiers of the Roman Republic first encountered mail shirts when fighting Gallic tribes in Cisalpine Gaul, now Northern Italy. The Roman army adopted the technology for their troops naming it lorica hamata. There does not seem to be any difference between mail worn by legionary or auxiliary troops. In either case, the length of mail shirts is depicted as varying from hip-length to just above the knee.
Lorica squamata (Scale armour)
Lorica squamata was made from small sections of metal sheet resembling fish scales that were wired side-by-side to their neighbours and sewn to a fabric backing (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 64). Surviving examples of scales show variation in size and shape, and that they were made of either iron or brass. The rows of scales were overlapped and offset by half a length of one scale to maximise protection. That said, no examples of an entire set of lorica squamata has been discovered, but there have been several archaeological finds of shirt fragments and individual scales are quite commonly found even in non-military contexts. ‘No examples of scale have yet been recognised in the archaeological record from the Republican period, nor are there any representations of Roman soldiers wearing it’ (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 64). While it is not known precisely when the Romans adopted this type of armour, it seems to have remained in use for about eight centuries being most prominent in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Moreover, finds of scales in the archaeological record seem to reveal this type of armour was more widely used than the evidence from tombstones suggests.
That said, the best evidence for what lorica squamata looked like is provided by carved reliefs of contemporary soldiers. These depictions, typically on funerary stelae, include signiferes (standard bearers), aeneatores (horn players) , centurions, cavalry troops, and auxiliary infantry, but also regular legionaries. The reconstruction shown right follows the Greek ‘linothorax’ design complete with shoulder doubling and pteryges attached. As with lorica hamata, the shoulder doubling is secured by hinged fasteners attached at the centre of the chest. Scales were frequently tinned. In the reconstruction, tinned scales alternate with the intervening brass ones to create a checkerboard pattern; a homage to a cuirass found at Ham Hill.
Lorica plumata (‘Feathered’ armour)
Lorica plumata, also known lorica hamata squamatque, was a hybrid Roman cuirass combining mail and scales. The very small feather-like scales, called plumes, attached to oval shaped rings gave it a ‘feathered’ appearance. Presumably very time consuming to manufacture, and by extension expensive, lorica plumata is not a common find.
‘Lorica segmentata’ (Plate armour)
‘Lorica segmentata’, also called ‘lorica laminata’ (where lamina describes a sheet of metal), is the best-known type of body armour used by Roman soldiers. The terms ‘segmentata‘ or ‘laminata’ were coined by historians as the Roman name is unknown , but are evocative of a cuirass constructed of iron strips fashioned into circular bands articulated on internal leather straps, with copper allot fittings (Bishop & Coulston, 2006, 95). ‘Lorica segmentata’ was modular and consisted of four principal elements or units: one for each shoulder, and one for each side of the torso. Each of these four sections was made of overlapping curved strips of ferrous plate riveted to leather straps permitting a considerable amount of movement between neighbouring plates (Bishop, 2002, 1-2).
In films, documentaries, video games and more widely in popular culture, ‘lorica segmentata‘ has become the iconic armour of the Roman legions. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to portray all legionaries clad in this type of armour even when the period being depicted pre-dates the armour’s introduction or is after its disappearance from the archaeological record. Moreover, there is evidence that banded armour was used by other civilizations before the Romans, in particular the Parthians and possibly the Dacians, Scythians, or Sarmatians. Some sets of armour similar to the ‘lorica segmentata‘ have been found in archaeological sites located in the steppe dating to the 4th century BC (Bishop, 2002, 18).
Precisely when the Romans adopted their first ‘lorica segmentata‘ is not yet known. Over time, however, there is archaeological evidence for the design developing. From the late 1st century BC to circa the mid-40s AD the Dangstetten-Kalkriese-Vindonissa type was in use. Seemingly this was replaced from circa the mid-40s AD to the first quarter of the 2nd century AD by the Corbridge-Carnuntum derivatives. From then until at least the first quarter of the 3rd century AD, the Newstead type was adopted. It highly likely that these different armour designs overlapped each other and were in concurrent use by Roman soldiers across the Empire.
In 1994, excavation at the site of the Augustan era Varusschlacht (‘Varus battle’) of AD 9 at Kalkriese, near Osnabrück (Germany), produced a dramatic piece of evidence which conclusively proved that ‘lorica segmentata‘ had been in use in the first decade of the 1st century AD - at least 40 years earlier than had previously been thought (Bishop, 2002, 23). The Kalkriese evidence consisted of a breastplate and a number of loose fittings. The breastplate shared many characteristics with the Corbridge type cuirass introduced later by having vertical and horizontal fastening straps and a hinge to join it to its mid-collar plate, although the fittings were of a completely different form. Its leather fastening straps were riveted directly to the body of the breastplate with large, disc-headed copper-alloy rivets, whilst the hinge fitting was sub-lobate (one end having three points) and attached with four rivets. The horizontal fastening strap still retained its buckle, which was attached directly to it with a pair of rivets. Finally, the whole circumference of the plate was edged with copper-alloy piping, similar to that used on iron helmets. In common with many ‘lorica segmentata’ breastplates, it was slightly convex (Bishop, 2002, 23).
The Corbridge type of ‘lorica segmentata‘ is the most completely understood of all the variants, thanks mainly to the remains of parts of as many as twelve cuirasses preserved in the Corbridge Hoard, discovered in 1964. The designs’ defining features are ‘lobate’ hinges, decorative washers, hinged straps and buckles, and brass tie loops for leather thongs to fasten the armour plates at front and back.
The finds of Newstead-type armour so far known are almost exclusively 2nd or 3rd century in date, with the Eining find appearing to date after AD 229 and the Zugmantel pieces before AD 259/60. Assemblages from Carlisle and Carnuntum contain both forms thereby indicating an indeterminate period of overlap in use of the Corbridge and Newstead types during the first half of the 2nd century AD (Bishop, 2002, 49). This armour’s defining features are larger breast and back plates, very large lobate hinges, and turning pins and slots to fasten the front and back.
Around the middle of the 3rd century AD ‘lorica segmentata‘ seems to have fallen out of favour with the Roman army, although it did remain in use during the Late Roman Empire. Soldiers wearing ‘lorica segmentata‘ are depicted on the Arch of Constantine, a monument erected in AD 315, but it is argued that these figures were repurposed from an earlier monument commissioned by Marcus Aurelius and incorporated into Constantine’s Arch.
The Roman army is famously divided into legionaries who held full citizenship and non-citizen auxiliary soldiers who were recruited from the Provinces. On monuments such as Trajan’s Column in Rome, auxilia are generally shown wearing mail shirts and carrying oval shields in contrast to legionarii who wear ‘lorica segmentata‘ and carry the curved rectangular shield. Consequently for a long time it has been supposed that ‘lorica segmentata‘ was exclusively worn by legionaries and men of the Praetorian Guard. Most historians today consider Trajan's Column to be a highly stylized and somewhat inaccurate portrayal of Roman soldiers. The archaeological record has provided evidence for different armour types, but our knowledge still retains gaps. The discovery of ‘lorica segmentata‘ pieces where auxiliary soldiers were stationed may be evidence that they also wore plate armour, but it is entirely possible that these finds were a consequence of small detachments of legionaries being present. Interestingly, on the Adamclisi Tropaeum , ‘lorica segmentata‘ makes no appearance with both legionaries and auxiliaries depicted wearing lorica hamata and lorica squamata.
Imperial Period Helmets
‘Munitions grade’, in the context of historical arms and armour, refers to mass-produced equipment suitable for storing in an armoury as opposed to items privately purchased by an individual. In a Roman context, such equipment might include helmets, body armour and weapons.
Munitions grade arms and armour are typically thought of as lower quality, but this was not always the case. From examples in the archaeological record, the actual quality of munitions grade equipment could vary widely but most probably in accordance with the budget available and a willingness to spend money. In a wealthy state such as the Roman Empire there was nothing to prevent the Roman army stocking its stores with extremely high-quality kit. There are two caveats, however. The first is that a piece of armour can be well made without being custom made. In other words, just because something is ‘off the rack’ does not mean shortcuts were taken in other areas of its construction. The second is that the ‘munitions grade’ armour of a wealthy state that spent lavishly on its munitions could easily be superior to those pieces of armour privately commissioned by someone with far fewer resources.
Roman helmets, known as galea or cassis, varied greatly in form as no two were exactly identical. There are, however, broad categories assigned by historians to the surviving examples. Categorisation in the UK has tended to follow the seminal 1975 work by H Russel Robinson, a curator in the Royal Armouries, who produced a typology sub-divided into models. In Robinson’s typology you may discover references to a ‘Coolus type C’ or an ‘Imperial Gallic type H’ helmet. In Europe, the trend has been to name objects after their find site. An example of the former was recovered from Coolus in France, hence the name, and an example of the latter was found in Augsburg, Germany. Regardless of the designation adopted, any of the helmet types described below would be appropriate for someone wishing to recreate the look of a Roman soldier of the 1st century AD.
The ‘Coolus’ style helmets The ‘Montefortino’ helmet depicted worn by the Hastatus in the artwork above was one of the earliest types used in the armies of the Roman Republic up to the 1st century BC. Made of bronze or copper-alloy (brass) this cone-shaped helmet had a small neck guard and a finial at its apex drilled to accept a crest secured by a pin. By the mid-1st century AD, the neck guard on these helmets had become enlarged. From the late 1st century BC to the late 2nd century AD ‘Montefortino’ style helmets (galea) were replaced by designs influenced by the northern Gallic tribes and identified today as ‘Coolus’. They adopted a ‘standard’ design featuring a more rounded dome protecting the cranium, a neck guard, a sturdy frontal peak for additional impact protection and decoration, and hinged cheek guards. The earliest examples had a small neck guard, no frontal peaks or brow guards, and no provision for a crest. Over time neck guards grew progressively larger, frontal peaks or brow guards were fitted, and pointed finials added for the attachment of a crest (see above right). The finials typically had a longitudinal slot, with a lateral hole passing through it, into which a flat tang attached to a crest can be inserted and secured with a pin through the finial and tang. Some examples have a copper-alloy tube attached to each side presumably for the insertion of decorative feathers or something similar.
Imperial Gallic style helmets As the term ‘Gallic’ suggests these Roman helmets shared features with those identifiable with tribal examples from Gaul. The oval bowl was decorated with embossed, corrugated ‘eyebrows’ that also functioned to reinforce the helmet’s frontal aspect. Often these iron helmets (brass versions are also known) were decorated with circular copper-alloy ‘roundels’ similar to those find on Corbridge type lorica segmentata. As shown below neck guards vary from the horizontal to those steeply angled downward on the Imperial Gallic H type shown below right.
A small square plate, raised in the middle to form a square-section tube, were rivetted to the tops of helmets. Into this tube the horizontal foot of a U-shaped bracket can be slotted. The soldier’s helmet crest (Latin: crista), when worn, was supported centrally by this bracket while being secured at each end of its crest box with laces tied to rings or hooks fitted at the front and back of the helmet bowl. Along with a crest, some Imperial Gallic helmets had brass ‘feather’ tubes fitted at each side.
Imperial Italic style helmets Very similar in design to the Gallic types, Imperial Italic helmets lack the embossed ‘eyebrows’ and decorated rivet roundels. As shown right, some were highly decorated with images of, for example, eagles and stylised temples. Brass edging was fitted to some but not all Imperial Italic helmets and the reinforcing brow guards were generally an L-section rather than solid pieces of metal. Crest fittings on top of the bowl were round with a slot into which a ‘turn and twist’ crest bracket could be fitted. The U-shaped bracket was similar to the Gallic types and crests were secured in the manner previously described.
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. & Coulston, J.C.N., (2006), ‘Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome’, second edition, Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Robinson, H.R., (1975), ‘The Armour of Imperial Rome’, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
1. Cheaper mail shirts available to buy often use rings whose ends are simply closed together. This is a much weaker construction where the rings can be pulled open by use, or more easily split apart by thrusting weapons.
2. Most re-enactment mail shirts are simply pulled over the head as one might wear a sweater or similar garment.
3. A variety of instruments were used by aeneatores. Aeneatores who blew a buccina (a C-shaped horn made of bronze or silver or animal horn) were known as bucinatores; those who blew a cornu (a G-shaped horn made of brass) were known as cornicines; those who blew a tuba (a straight bronze horn with a slight flare at the end) were known as tubicens. Unlike bucinatores, cornicens and tubicens mostly performed uncomplicated tactical signalling on the battlefield, and therefore were not accorded special status in the military unit.
4. Since lorica hamata and lorica squamata are genuine Latin terms that were in ancient use, the use of the early modern formulation of ‘lorica segmentata’ in quotation marks is intended to mark the term’s lack of ancient authenticity. An alternative approach might be to write of lorica segmentata and marking its difference by not italicising it.
5. The Tropaeum Traiani is a monument in Roman Civitas Tropaensium (site of modern Adamklisi, Romania) in what was then the province of Moesia Inferior. It was built in AD 109 to commemorate the Emperor Trajan's victory over the Dacians, in the winter of AD 101-102, in the Battle of Adamklisi. Some experts are of the opinion that the Adamklisi monument is a more accurate portrayal Roman soldiers in the field and in combat.