? Armor of Ancient RomeAncient Rome expended a great deal of economic resources and effort upon conquest andexpansion through military means. The role of armor was fundamental in this expansion as itplayed a significant role in the success of the Roman armies on the battlefield. There were threecommon requirements for armor construction throughout its history: The first was that armorhad to be flexible enough to allow the wearer freedom of movement; second, it also had to belightweight enough to be worn without tiring the wearer while providing protection againstopponents’ weapons; and third, armor had to be cost effective.
These three aspects influencedthe evolution of Roman cuirass (lorica) design throughout Rome’s history. The central conceptin the study of Roman armor is that it was always a compromise between mobility, protection,and cost. There were at least four cuirass types in use during the first century A. D. These were themuscle, scale, mail, and segmented cuirasses with mail and segmented cuirasses being the mostpredominant.
The study of these armor types relies upon three main sources of evidence:iconographic (e. g. , sculpture, tombstones, monuments); archaeological; and literary sources. The evolution of Roman lorica was driven by the needs and circumstances of the RomanArmy.
Armies of the 1st century A. D. were firmly established within the Empire and control fellsolely under the auspices of the Emperor. Increasingly the main strength of the Roman army, upto thirty legions, was garrisoned on the frontiers. Only a token military force, the PraetorianGuard, remained in Rome. The military situation in this period was seldom dormant.
In the 1stcentury the invasion of Britain (A. D. 43) necessitated the reorganization of legions andauxiliaries over much of north west Europe. Further reorganization occurred after the civil warof A. D.
69, when the victorious Flavian dynasty dispersed disloyal units. As the Empire’sexpansion slowed, permanent borders were established. Auxiliaries patrolled the borders andlegionnaires were stationed within the frontiers to act as a strategic reserve and intimidatepotentially rebellious provinces. The army can be divided into two distinct parts: the legion and the auxiliary ( auxilia), with amarked social division existing between the two. Only Roman citizens could becomelegionnaires, while auxilia were composed of non citizens recruited from Rome’s client statesand tribes. These legions were supported by the non citizen auxilia consisting of infantry cohortsand cavalry (alae).
A legion consisted of around 5,000 men which were mostly heavy footsoldiers. However, it is only possible to attempt a rough estimate of the men who constituted alegion. It has been estimated that the total number of Roman troops, including legions andauxilia, numbered more than 300,000 during the first century A. D.
It has also been assumedthat the legionary and auxiliary troops were equipped differently. This notion is based onevidence from a single source, Trajan’s column, which shows clear distinctions betweenlegionary and auxiliary equipment. The early view put forward by historians such as Webster was that the equipment issued tolegionnaires was remarkably uniform throughout the empire. However, the archaeologicalevidence does not support this theory, showing that a wide range of types and ages of equipmentwas in use at any one time.
Peterson argues that uniformity in the Roman army may have onlyextended to soldiers having their own serviceable body armor, helmet, weapons and shielddisplaying a common unit emblem. Bishop and Coulston suggest that in this period soldiershad to purchase their own equipment. The system encouraged the individual to be morerespectful of their equipment by introducing a sense of personal responsibility. Most of thisequipment may have been purchased from army stock, but soldiers may have been free to buymore elaborate or expensive items from private craftsmen. As this was probably beyond theeconomic means of most soldiers, elaborate cuirasses have been attributed only to soldiers ofcenturion rank or higher.
Bishop further proposes that military equipment could be sold back tothe legions upon retirement or death of the owner, and therefore could be passed down to anumber of different owners. He cites evidence of equipment which has been found with severalowner inscriptions. The cost of this equipment would probably have forced recycling, and inconjunction with the repair of damaged equipment this may have meant that the life of an objectcould be expected to last for many years. These factors also suggest that the actual production ofnew loricae at any one time may have been fairly low.
One of the most widely recognized of these Roman lorica was the so called ‘muscle’ cuirass,probably Hellenistic in origin. This cuirass was molded on the contours of the muscles of themale chest which were reproduced in an idealized manner. This type of cuirass was probablyconstructed from iron or bronze, consisting of a high-waisted or hip length breastplate. Shoulderstraps hinged to the edges of the back plate, with their forward extremities tied down to rings onthe breast. These plates had side fastenings with perhaps two hinges or a pair of rings joined byties providing for the soldier’s left and right flanks.
None of these metallic muscled cuirasses ofthe Roman period have survived in the archaeological record. However, Etruscan metal musclecuirasses dating from 5th to the 3rd Century B. C. have been found.
Muscle cuirasses have alsobeen believed to have been made of leather. However, a molded leather cuirass would have to bevery thick and rigid to have any defensive qualities. Robinson suggests that this cuirass type wasprobably worn almost exclusively by emperors and top-ranking military leaders as a symbol ofRoman might and sovereignty. Another type of cuirass was the lorica squamata, also known as scaled or jezeraint armor.
Scale armor is perhaps the oldest type of metal body armor. Peterson proposed that its originsdate to at least the 2nd millennium B. C. , having a long history of use in Greece and the East. Despite its early origins it was used throughout the entire period of Roman dominance. Scalearmor was usually depicted with short sleeves, and the lower edges reaching the upper thighs.
Scale armor was made from both iron and bronze. The manufacture of scale armor involvedsmall sections of metal sheeting of varying sizes being attached by wires or riveted to theirneighbors and sewn onto a suitably flexible foundation of hide or strong cloth. Early scale armorwas commonly joined by small twisted links of bronze wiring, positioned in horizontal rows,overlapping upwards and layered like scales of a fish or in the manner of roof tiles. Evidence ofparts of a bronze lorica squamata was found at the site of Corstopitum (Corbridge) inNorthumberland England.
These scales were very small, and due to the expense incurred inmanufacturing such fine armor, Simkins proposes that the man, probably an officer, no doubtwould have purchased this armor himself. A similar group of 346 scales which was found inthe fort of Newstead (A. D. 98-100), of yellow bronze (perhaps a result of oxidization), are largermeasuring 2.
9 cm by 1. 2 cm. Generally, the defensive qualities of scale are inferior to mailarmor, being neither as strong nor as flexible. It was nevertheless popular throughout the Romanperiod, possibly because it appears that it may have been simpler to manufacture and repair thanother loricae (although presumably more difficult to maintain because of its intricateconstruction). Experimental archaeology conducted by Massey has tested reconstructions ofknown arrowheads against various body defenses used in Roman times.
At a range of 7 meters,Massey argues that arrowheads seemed to penetrate this armor type one out of every twooccasions. He suggests that this may occur due to the shape of the scales and the way in whichthe scales have been assembled. Presumably the changing conditions of the test would alsoaffect the frequency of penetration. Further, it is concluded that tests indicated that when scalearmor had been strengthened by wiring in a series of horizontal rows, none of the knowncontemporary arrow types could penetrate it, although the scales were severely deformed. Amodern parallel would be modern body armor (kevlar), which will stop some bullets however,the impact may nonetheless cause severe trauma such as internal hemorrhaging.
Archaeological finds appear to indicate that this type of armor was used much more widelythan the surviving sculptures suggest, although only fragments of the armor survive. Despitethis evidence the use of lorica squamatae does not appear to have been as extensive as mail. Peterson suggests that the sculptured record indicates that lorica squamata was largely theexclusive equipment of centurions and high-ranking officers between the 1st and 2nd centuriesA. D. . Mail was also known as lorica hamata by the Romans.
It is generally accepted that theRomans acquired their knowledge of mail-making from the Celts, who were the originalfabricators of this form of armor. Mail consists of metal rings, each one linked through fourothers, two in the row above it and two below. The fine mail of the 1st century could be madefrom bronze or iron rings measuring as little as 3mm in diameter. Only fragments of mail existin the archaeological record but the sculptured record indicates that there were many variationsof lorica hamata. The method of construction of mail rings in Roman times is similar to that oflater periods.
Warry says that mail could be made from rings of two sorts: solid rings or opened,linked rings which could be either butted or riveted shut. Robinson proposes that the oldest andquickest method of construction is where every alternate row of rings is punched out of sheetmetal and the rows connecting them are made from wire, with their ends flattened, overlapped,punched and riveted. However, there is little evidence of punched rings in the archaeologicalrecord. The Romans appear to have almost always riveted the ends of the rings together, theresult being that the mail was much stronger than the butted variety, made by simply butting thewire ends together and which could be torn open quite readily. These rings could vary in sizefrom an outside diameter ranging between 3mm and 9mm, the latter being found in post 1stcentury A.
D. sites. There were advantages and disadvantages in using mail armor. The rings provided excellentdefense against slashing cuts and was also effective against thrusts, while remaining veryflexible. As there were only interlinking rings to give it form the armor suffered little from wearand could be repaired even when badly damaged.
Mail armor could be easily recycled andpassed down from the legion to the auxiliary, as it would still remain functional as armorregardless of its age or even if superseded by another type. This may be indicated by thesculptured record from later periods such as Trajan’s column, which shows that earlier cuirasstypes were in use with the western legions during the Dacian campaigns. A disadvantage of mail over other cuirasses is that its manufacture is extremely laborintensive, perhaps taking as much as 180 hours to make a complete mail hauberk of the simplesttype worn by auxiliaries from 1/4 inch stamped and butted wire rings. Clearly armor of this typemust have been a costly exercise to manufacture. While it afforded reasonable freedom ofmovement, it was also very heavy, weighing perhaps as much as 15pounds .
The weight mayhave been countered by the use of a cingulum militare (a military belt), which could be drawntightly about the waist, thereby distributing part of the weight onto the hips and relieving theshoulders of part of their burden. Moreover, tests using contemporary arrow types by Masseysuggests that most arrowhead types consistently penetrated the mail to a depth that would provelethal to the wearer. However, bunching of the mail at suspension points prevented penetrationof the mail beyond a depth of 3-5 cm. This implies that the doubling of mail shoulderdefenses known to be practiced by both Romans and Celts may have saved the life of theirowners. ” These observations are consistent with Plutarch’s writings of the life of MarcusLicinius Crassus who in 53 B. C.
engaged the Parthians with his army in the deserts ofMesopotamia at the Battle of Carrhae. Plutarch was not exaggerating when he spoke of arrows:. . . which could pierce armor and pass through every kind of defensive covering, hard orsoft alike . .
. or of . . .
hands pinned to their shields, and their feet nailed through into theground, so that they were capable neither fly nor fight. The armor in question was probably mail as it was used extensively by legionnaires during thelate Republic until the introduction of the lorica segmentata in Claudian times. Massey’s testingalso showed that arrow shafts were occasionally locked into place by the deformed mail ringsthrough which these had passed, which would have made them difficult to remove and thewounds considerably more difficult to treat. Mail also would not absorb the impact of a blow,unless extremely well padded by a very thick doublet, and the mail could also be driven into theflesh of the wearer. It is, perhaps, because of these disadvantages that after the introduction ofsegmental armor, mail was probably largely confined to the auxiliary troops. The form of cuirass for which the 1st century is best known is the lorica segmentata.
Thename was not invented by the Romans but came into use during the Renaissance. It was the firsttype of articulated plate armor cuirass, the origins of which are unclear. The segmental cuirassmay have found its way into the Roman army from the gladiatorial arena. The first time theRoman legionnaires came into contact with this armor may have been during the revolt of Florusand Sacrovir in 21 A. D. This revolt consisted of heavily armored gladiators, called crupellarii,fighting against legionnaires.
Tacitus described how armored gladiators were killed by thelegionnaires hacking through their segmented armor with pickaxes. It is highly probable thatthis form of armor was being issued as standard legionary equipment by the time the EmperorClaudius’ troops invaded Britain in A. D. 43. The lorica segmentata was constructed of collar and shoulder units which consisted of 24plates (lames) and 16 girdle plates.
The latter were half semicircular iron lames, consisting ofstrips of iron sheet, and were positioned horizontally, riveted onto leather straps. The lames werelaced at the center of the breast and back in such a way as to encircle the trunk completely whilestill allowing the body considerable freedom of movement. The articulation of the bands waskept in place by a complicated system of straps and buckles. Fastened on the inside by leatherstraps and fastened at the front and back with laces, buckles and straps.
These fittings, wereusually made of a thin brass sheet. The defense was completed with two half-collars (shoulderguards) of articulated lames. Each collar consisted of a small breastplate (3. 3 cm by 8.
6 cm wideat the lower end) which was fastened to other lames that formed a neck guard. Both of theshoulder-guards consisted of five plates. The largest upper plates were made from three piecesjoined to each other by bronze hinges as were the collar units beneath. The lorica segmentatawas superior to mail in both manufacturing and as armor. However, the armor’s chief advantagewas in its weight, around 12lb, depending upon the thickness of plates used. Plates were madeby hammer work, and Bishop and Coulston note that an analysis of surviving fragments of ironplates of the lorica segmentata type show that they had not been hardened in any way, althoughthe Romans are known to have been aware of this technique.
They also suggest that Romanarmorers deliberately produced ‘soft’ armor that could absorb the force of a blow as it crumpled. This softness allowed the metal to deform extensively, absorbing the impact of weapons anddenying them the resistance needed to penetrate effectively. Massey cites evidence ofcontemporary arrowhead types used against this type of armor. On no occasion did arrowheadsof any type tested afford lethal penetration. Shots directed at this type of armor either glancedoff or gave minimal penetration.
This effectiveness was apparently due to a combination of thesoftness of the metal and the internal gap between the plates. Massey also proposes that up untilthe introduction of lorica segmentata in Claudian times there was no armor form in widespreaduse which could guarantee the wearer’s safety against arrow attack. This armor was alsoespecially fortified in shoulder-defense. As such it may have normally been employed byparticular legions, notably those fighting the Celts, whose style of fighting and use of weaponssuch as the long sword posed a particular threat to the head and shoulders of the lineinfantryman.
Segmented plate armor had disadvantages as well. Most notable is the loss ofprotection to the thighs and upper arms. Simkins states that during the Emperor Trajan’s Daciancampaign, the Romans fought against adversaries armed with long scythe-like swords called falx. These were capable of reaching past the legionnaire’s scutum (a large curved shield) toinjure the unprotected sword arm. This weapon may have also endangered the soldiers’ legswhich from Republican times were bare, protection here being compromised for the sake ofmobility. However, the Adamklissi monument suggests that legionnaires in these two campaignsmay have augmented their protection with greaves and segmental armguards similar to thoseworn by gladiators.
The archaeological record provides rich evidence of this type of armor. Excavation hasprovided more evidence of this form of cuirass than both scale and mail. The most importantdiscovery was made in 1964, at the site of the Roman station of Corstopitum in Northumberland(Corbridge) at Hadrian’s Wall, when two complete sets of this type were found in a woodenchest buried below the floor of a timber building of the Flavian period fort. This is the only sitewhere this type of armor has been found in a reasonably complete state, despite the fact thatcopper alloy buckles, hinges, hooks and loops of this armor are a common find on 1st centuryRoman military sites throughout Europe and the Golan Heights in Israel, indicating itswidespread use. Another pattern of lorica segmentata has been identified and tentatively reconstructed fromfragments found in the well in the headquarters building at Newstead near Melrose in Scotland.
Simkins suggests that this pattern was probably developed in the later years of the 1st centuryand is the model for the majority of representations of legionary soldiers on Trajan’s Column. It is difficult to tell how long the earlier Corbridge pattern lorica remained in use until it waseventually replaced by the Newstead type. They may have continued for quite some time afterthe introduction of the Newstead type for two reasons. First, like the replacement of mail bysegmented armor types, re-equipping legions with new armor was expensive; and second, armorwhich was still in a serviceable condition remained useful regardless of age. The Newsteadtype of cuirass is a much simplified pattern in which the elaborate fittings of the older patterns(such as buckles and ties) have been discarded. The hinges have been replaced by simple rivets,and the belt and buckle fastenings by hooks.
The shoulder plates are riveted together and thegirdle lames are larger than previous lames, although probably reduced to five or six pairs, thelower two pairs being replaced by a single pair of wide plates. The inner shoulder-guard plate inthis type is a single strip instead of three plates hinged together, coming down much further atthe front and back. This deep inflexible breast and upper back plates were laminated in thesame way as the girdles and held together by internal leather straps. The simplification of thelorica segmentata indicates that earlier designs were probably over engineered and the complexcuirass types were both labor and maintenance intensive and more prone to fall apart.
Thisform of cuirass was used extensively for most of this period due to its successful form. Incontrast to the earlier armors the lorica segmentata was flexible, lighter and easier to maintainand repair. The design of this armor also adapted and evolved in response to the fightingtechniques of a number of different enemies and the economic needs of Rome at this time. Armor has much to tell about the Roman Army, its method of waging war, and the economyof the first century.
The change in military equipment illustrates a process whereby Romanforces borrowed the technology of other people whom they came into conflict. These adaptionsare illustrated by the cuirass forms taken from the Greeks, and the Celts. Innovation occurredusing the available military and civilian technology to counter a threat posed by a particularenemy. Thus by the 1st century A. D. much of the soldiers’ equipment, including the cuirass, wasderived from enemies of earlier periods.
The four types of cuirass identified in this paper havetheir own characteristics and variations. They all have benefits or drawbacks in terms ofprotection, mobility and cost. There appears to be a trend toward the most favorable balancebetween these three factors which ultimately led to the introduction of lorica segmentata andthen its simplification of form. Bibliography? BibliographyBalent, M. , The Compendium of Weapons, Armour & Castles. New York: Palladium Books,1989.
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