The Roman army was one of the biggest assets of the ancient Roman Empire. Based on many artifacts and some literary sources, the archaeologists and historians have been able to recreate a wide range of ancient Roman armor. Read through this Historyplex article to know what the ancient Roman armor was like.
According to the American military strategist, Edward Luttwak, though the Roman armor was well-designed and advanced, it was not of a better quality than that used by some of its enemies.
The Roman Empire was one of the mightiest empires in the ancient world. By means of archaeological excavations and historical sources, we now know about lot of interesting facets of ancient Rome and its people. Apart from their art and architectural remains, and their legal system (from which, the world has borrowed a lot of things), an aspect of ancient Rome that tends to intrigue us the most, pertains undoubtedly to their military might. We know for sure that the ancient Roman Empire possessed a huge military-infantry, cavalry, and navy-and the various warfare techniques and weapons, which they used were so sophisticated for their time, that we can only but admire them. A Roman soldier was an important unit of the military, and those in power seemed take utmost care regarding the safety and security of the soldiers at the time of war. In this respect, what played the most significant role was the armor that the soldiers wore.
What is an Armor?
An armor, in military terms, is a protective gear worn by soldiers and war animals, as a covering to prevent themselves from getting injured or hurt. Sources tell us that armor has been used by warriors throughout the recorded history. Various materials such as leather, wood, bronze, etc. have been used for making armors since ancient times, and there are so many different kinds of armors used all over the world that it is extremely difficult to keep a track.
Typically, there are different types of armors used to safeguard different parts of an individual’s body. For instance, a torso armor is used to cover the torso, the limb armor is used to cover the hands and the feet, and so on. Notably enough, a shield is also a form of personal armor that can protect its bearer from lethal weapons such as swords, maces, arrows, and battle axes. So, a fully armored soldier usually bears a protective covering over his/her body, and also holds a shield.
Armors in Ancient Rome
In 2nd century BCE, a decree was passed in the Roman senate, according to which, it would be the responsibility of the state from then on to provide the soldiers with all the necessary military equipment. The scope of the decree also encompassed the provision of protective gear or armor. The Roman soldiers did wear armors prior to the decree, but from then on, it was made official. Material remains of the period, such as relief and free-standing sculptures, and other archaeological evidence show that the ancient Roman military used a variety of different armors, much like their Greek predecessors. Following are some of the most popular kinds of armors, the ancient Greek legionaries seemed to use during wartime.
The Torso Armor
The torso armor, as the name suggests, was used as a protective covering to protect the soldier’s torso from, often fatal injuries. The Roman torso armor can be classified into four broad kinds, which include the following:
Lorica Segmentata: The Segmented Armor
A purely Roman invention, the Lorica Segmentata seems to have evolved from the design of torso armors of some of the Roman gladiators. This armor was essentially composed of numerous long straps of laminated iron, which were joined together, either with metal hooks or with leather straps. Owing to its structure, this armor was flexible enough to enable easy torso movements for the soldiers. At the same time, the use of iron ensured maximum protection to the people wearing it. Owing to the fact that even the collar of the armor was made of an iron strap, the soldiers wore a scarf, so that their necks could be prevented from scraping. This armor was introduced in about 1st century BCE, during the reign of Emperor Augustus. However, archaeological evidence suggests that by the middle of the 2nd century CE, its use declined to a great extent.
Lorica Hamata: The Mail Armor
Also known as the “hook armor” or the “chain armor”, this armor was completely made of iron, and in some instances, of bronze. Known to be the typical armor worn by the heavy infantry legionaries and auxiliary troops, it first made its appearance in Roman military in the first half of the 1st century BCE. Generally, the soldiers wore a padded garment beneath this armor, owing to the fact that it was entirely made of heavy metal rings. These rings, roughly bearing a diameter of five to seven mm, were linked to each other by placing the closed washer-like rings and riveted rings in an alternating sequence. This was by far, the most flexible and the strongest armor, and was used by numerous other major empires, the world over.
Lorica Squamata: The Scale Armor
This was another armor that was widely used during the ancient Roman times. It comprised iron or bronze scales arranged in straight rows, one below the other. Every two adjacent scales were attached to each other by means of metal wires. Once the entire row was formed, it was sewn to a coat made of cloth, that the soldier wore. This kind of structure gave it a scaly appearance, hence the name. While this was the easiest armor to wear, it imparted a comparatively lesser flexibility. Added to this, it was very uncomfortable for a mounted legionary. Also, it was not very useful to protect one from an upward stab. Artistic depictions tell us that this kind of armor/pattern was worn, not only by the military, but also people such as musicians and standard bearers.
Lorica Musculata: The Breastplate Armor
This kind of armor is undoubtedly the influence of the ancient Greeks. It is nothing but a bronze plate armor that the soldiers wore while at war. Many times, the breastplate was embellished with faunal and mythological motifs. It was fitted on layered linen or leather, which the soldiers wore, and which also gave them extra protection. Quite interestingly, we have no archaeological evidence of this kind of armor from the Roman period. However, we can infer that it may have been used during the time, owing to the artistic fragments that depict a number of military legionaries and officers wearing the same, while fighting on the battlefield.
Balteus: The Sword Belt
The Limb Armor
While at war, it was also equally important to protect one’s arms and feet from being injured or cut off by the blows of various dangerous weapons. The limb armor was designed to fulfill this very function. The following were the limb armors, which the ancient Romans used.
Manica: The Arm Guard
This classic Roman arm guard was made of overlapping iron or bronze, semicircular bands, which were attached to leather straps. In ancient Rome, this kind of a limb armor, first came to used by the gladiators. It was only after its effectiveness was proven over the years, that the Roman senate declared it as a part of an official military armor. The arm guard imparted flexibility to the swordsman’s hands, and so, it was very comfortable to be used.
Greave: The Shin Guard
Two ancient Roman writers, Polybius and Vegetius, have mentioned about the use of a greave by the Roman light as well as heavy infantry, in their works. However, the use of the term “greave” as a singular, implies that this shin guard was worn only on one leg, presumably the left. We also have numerous sculptural depictions affirming the same. We also know that the use of the greave was more rampant among the gladiators. During the Roman Empire, greaves were mass produced by pressing single sheets of metal, and attaching a cloth or leather lining to their inner surface. The metals used were generally bronze or iron.
Caligae: The Boots
The Roman soldiers and gladiators, invariably wore a helmet, and also often, a face mask. Their helmet or galea, as the Romans called it, was originally influenced by the ancient Etruscans. However, with the passage of time, the design as well as the manufacturing process of the helmets underwent a considerable change. Owing to this, if we consider the entire period over which the Roman Empire spanned, the helmets which their soldiers and gladiators used can be broadly classified into five distinctive kinds. These are the following:
Influenced by the Celts, the Roman military is known to have used this helmet between 4th century BCE and 1st century CE. It was round in shape, and bore a raised central knob at the top. It also had a neck guard and cheek plates, so that the sides of the soldier’s head could be protected. This was by far, the most primitive model of Roman helmet, which further evolved into a more advanced design. Owing to the fact that the helmet was undecorated, it can be inferred that it was cheap, and probably was mass produced to be used by the lower ranks of the military.
This brass helmet was hemispherical in shape, and was used by the Roman legionaries from about the 3rd century BCE to at least the 1st century CE. Though its shape resembled more or less with the earlier Montefortino type, it differed from it, in that it did not have a, upraised central knob at its top. It also possessed the neck guard and the cheek plates, and recovered samples tell us that it had no decorations, except for some ridges and embossed panels on cheek plates.
Imperial Gallic Helmet
This kind of helmet was used by the Roman military between the late 1st century BCE and the early 2nd century CE. Similar to the earlier two helmets in design, this helmet had another, very interesting feature. It had a carrying handle, probably to make it easier to carry, owing to its weight. It was made either from iron or from one of its two alloys viz. brass or bronze. The cheek guards were embossed. Plus, although we do not have depictions or literary records, some of the brass specimen show evidence of feather holders, suggesting that they might have been worn by the higher ranks.
Imperial Italic Helmet
Used by the Roman legionaries between the latter half of the 1st century BCE and the former half of the 2nd century CE, the Imperial Italic helmet shows a definite advancement of the design style. We have evidence of some intact specimens, decorated with gilded motifs, and highly embellished neck guards and cheek plates. For the first time we seem iron and bronze hammered together to one another to give it a double-colored appearance. There were crest holders on some helmets, which signify that such helmets belonged to the higher ranks. The crests were made of horse hair or plumes.
Shields are an equally important part of a soldier’s personal armor. It helps a soldier to intercept attacks, either by stopping weapons like arrows or by redirecting a blow from a heavy weapon. Owing to its use, the shield formed an inevitable part of the Roman armor. The Roman legionaries primarily used two main kinds of shields, alongside others. These were the following:
Parma: The Round Shield
This round shield was used by the Roman army, especially during the Imperial era. It bore a diameter of about 36 inches, and was made fully of iron. Used predominantly by the lowest divisions of the Roman army, the Parma was very effective in blocking arrows.
Scutum: The Rectangular Shield
Rectangular and semi-cylindrical in shape, the Scutum was a big shield that could cover the entire body of the soldier. It weighed about 10 kg, and was made from two sheets of wood, glued together, which were then covered with canvas and leather. We have depictions of this shield from about the 3rd century CE onwards.
The weapons that were in use during the Roman Empire were indeed very advanced for the time. Owing to the fact that the history of the Roman Empire is that of constant conflicts and battles, it was very essential for them to maintain a big and a strong military. The armor that was provided to the soldiers by the senate post the 2nd century BCE decree, ensured the safety of their military. One cannot deny the fact that the Roman armor was very well-designed to impart maximum protection to the fighters. Plus, the kind of armor worn also pointed towards the military rank of the person wearing it.