Roman Legionary Infantrymen





LEGIO Comitatenses, GALLIA, 451 A. D. The Ursarienses were a Statutory [Standing Army] Comitatenses (ie belonging to the mobile army, the comitatus) of the late empire, this man is from Legio III Italica according to Notitia dignitatum, under the command of the Magister equitum infra Gallias. The legionaries were protected by cuirabolli curiass, wore tunics decorated with orbicoli and clavi, and were equipped with round or oval shield. The new helmet of Persiano-derivation [Sassanid] was one of many variations of this late period.

The ancient sources present a reasonably clear picture of the Republic’s military affairs as it emerged from the struggle with Hannibal. All Roman citizens between the ages of seventeen and thirty-six were liable for service. The maximum length of service was likely sixteen years for infantry and ten for cavalry, but in normal circumstances a soldier would probably serve for up to six years and then be released.

The number of the main infantry division, the legion, is given as 4,200 soldiers, but in emergencies it could be higher. The legion was drawn up in three lines of hastati, principes, and triarii, with the youngest and poorest forming the velites. As lightly armed skirmishers, the velites carried a sword, javelin, and small circular shield. The hastati and principes, in contrast, were heavily armed. Protected by the long Italic shield, they relied upon a short Spanish sword, or gladius, and two throwing spears, or pila. Like the hastati and principes, the triarii were also heavily armed, but they carried a thrusting spear, or hasta, instead of the pilum. All soldiers wore a bronze breast- plate, a bronze helmet, and a pair of greaves, or shin guards. In order to be distinguished from a distance, the velites covered their helmets with wolfskin, and the hastati wore three tall feathers in their helmets. To preserve a degree of exclusiveness, wealthy recruits wore shirts of ring mail, whether serving among the hastati, principes, or triarii.

At the beginning of Augustus’s reign as emperor in 27 b. c. e., Roman legionary infantrymen wore a simple round helmet with a horsehair tail at the top as well as a chain mail shirt known as a lorica hamata. The latter consisted of interlocking metal rings and provided good protection but was, however, very heavy and took a long time to manufacture. Later in Augustus’s reign infantrymen began to use a new type of helmet, of Gallic origin, which was more closely fitted to the skull and included neck and cheek guards. In addition, possibly due to a major loss of military equipment in the German defeat of three legions in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 c. e.), the Roman infantry began to use a new type of breastplate known as the lorica segmentata. This armor consisted of horizontal metal bands covering the chest and abdomen as well as vertical metal bands protecting the shoulders. This could be manufactured much more quickly than mail armor and was very flexible. However, the fittings that held the bands together were easily damaged; as a result, this type of armor was in constant need of repair. Early imperial infantrymen also wore greaves, or shin guards, on their legs as well as leather strips called pteurages that were attached to their body armor and provided protection for their thighs and upper arms.

The principal weapon of early imperial legionary infantrymen was a short sword called a gladius, which was modeled after that of the Spanish Celts and used for hand-to-hand combat. Infantrymen also carried a javelin, or pilum, which was hurled at the enemy from a distance, as well as a thrusting spear known as a hasta. The large semicylindrical shield, or scutum, was probably of Celtic origin and derived from flat oval shields. By the first century c. e. its upper and lower curved edges had been removed, giving it a more rectangular shape. Legionary infantrymen were also equipped with a dagger, which, like the gladius, was of Spanish origin.

Roman officers of the early Empire wore the same Gallic-type helmets worn by the infantry and a variety of body armor, including mail shirts, cuirasses that were modeled after the human torso, or scale shirts known as loricae squamatae. The latter consisted of overlapping metal scales arranged in horizontal rows and fastened to a foundation of linen or hide. This type of armor was easy to make and repair and, when polished, gave the wearer an impressive appearance. However, it was not very flexible, and its wearer was vulnerable to a sword or spear thrust from below.

Under the early Empire, troops of the auxilia used equipment that was generally inferior to that of the legionaries; however, they began to receive better quality equipment during the reign of the emperor Trajan (c. 53-c. 117 c. e.). The infantry wore a variety of helmets as well as leather tunics covered with metal plates or mail, and used narrow, flat, some- times oval shields. Their principal weapons were the hasta and the spatha, a long sword that became the dominant form of sword throughout the Roman army by the early third century. Cavalrymen wore iron hel- mets that covered the entire head except for the eyes, nose, and mouth. They wore either mail or scale body armor and used the same weapons as did the infantry of the auxilia cohorts. Although they did not use stirrups, they were firmly anchored on horseback by the four projecting horns of their saddles.

During the crisis of the third century c. e. the Roman Empire experienced increased invasion and internal chaos but lacked a centralized military supply system. Armies were consequently forced to salvage equipment from battlefields or to obtain it on their own from other sources, which, in turn, led to an end to uniformity in the appearance of soldiers. During this period, the lorica segmentata was gradually abandoned, and soldiers increasingly made use of mail shirts as well as an improved form of scale armor. In this type of armor, which did not require a foundation, the scales were ringed together vertically as well as horizontally. The scales were therefore locked down, and the wearer was much less vulnerable to a thrust from below. Moreover, the older Gallic helmet was replaced by a new helmet of Sarmatian origin, the spangenhelm, which consisted of several metal plates held together in a conical shape by reinforcement bands. This helmet, which included cheek, neck, and nose guards, was used by both infantry and cavalry. In addition the scutum was replaced by a large-dished oval shield covered with hide or linen. Cavalry units used a similar type of shield that featured the insignia of the bearer’s unit.

In the late third century c. e., the emperor Diocletian (c. 245-316 c. e.) established a series of state-run arms factories, or fabricae, in an attempt to remedy the supply problem. However, these factories failed to restore uniformity in military equipment due to the fact that a wide range of barbarian peoples were serving in the Roman army by this time and used their own native weapons. In the fourth century the factories did mass-produce a new type of helmet of Parthian-Sassanian origin, known as a ridge helmet, because it consisted of two metal halves held together by a central ridge. During this period, soldiers also received monetary allowances for the purchase of clothing, arms, and armor. By the late fourth century c. e., the army came to include increased numbers of barbarians who had little need for armor and therefore little desire to purchase it for regular use. Instead, soldiers relied primarily on large circular shields for protection. When an army was on the march, its armor was carried in wagons and was normally used only during an actual pitched battle. The Roman army also used various types of artillery both in battle and when conducting a siege. These included a device known as a tormenta, which fired arrows, javelins, and rocks, as well as larger ballistae and catapults that hurled larger arrows or stones.

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