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The Roman Army

Equipment and Clothing

The basic garment worn by Roman legionnaires – as well as by civilians – was the tunic. Over an undertunic made of linen, they used to wear a sleeveless or short-sleeved tunic made of wool. A belt allowed the wearer to adjust the tunic’s length by pulling up the fabric and draping it over the belt. During the cold season, »tibialia,« gaiters or legging-like hoses made of fabric or fur, were worn to keep legs and feet warm. (The knee-long trousers introduced earlier, which were commonly used by auxiliary troops, were accepted by Roman soldiers as late as in the 2nd century AD.) The cloak preferred by Augustus’ soldiers was the »paenula,« a garment that was also worn by civilians. The paenula was made of a felt-like fabric (loden) and shaped like a poncho with a hood. It was supplemented with the »focale,« a woolen scarf. The clothing of higher ranking individuals and even that of the emperor was not different from that of a legionnaire. Only wearing the purple-colored cloak, the »paludamentum,« was reserved for officers, who put it on exclusively for certain ceremonies or festivities.

»Caligae« were the typical footwear of the Roman military – hob-nailed military sandals made of leather. They were worn by everybody in the army, from infantry and cavalry up to the centurions, whereas tribunes and legates wore the »calceus,« a low-cut sewn boot made of soft leather. It is an interesting anecdote that the little son of Germanicus, who grew up in his father’s military camp, was dubbed »Caligula« by the soldiers. The who obviously liked the boy. »Caligula« translates into »little soldier’s sandal.« The later Roman emperor also became known in history under this name.

Arming

The military belt, which was richly adorned with metal fittings, was called »cingulum militare.« The four to eight metal-fitted leather strips dangling from the belt and worn around the waist (pteryges) became popular in the middle of the first century AD. At the time of Emperor Augustus and at the beginning of Tiberius’ reign, soldiers did not wear them.

The often richly ornamented metal cuirass, which was skillfully made to highlight the metal’s color, was only worn by the emperor and the highest-ranking Roman officers, because it was very expensive to manufacture such a cuirass. Simple soldiers used to wear chainmail, the »lorica hamata.« This type of armor allowed its wearer to move freely. Moreover, it was lightweight and inexpensive. The »lorica hamata,« which weighed eight to nine kilograms, was generally worn with a belt until the middle of the first century AD. Around this time, wide shoulder parts covering the upper arms in cape-like fashion became popular, as became the »pteryges.« These leather strips were attached to the seam of the undergarment as well as to the shorter (fake) sleeves, offering additional protection. They were also worn by legionnaires in combination with the short »lorica,« whereas before they were only worn by centurions and standard bearers.

Besides chainmail, scale armor existed. The up to five centimeter wide leather scales were sometimes covered with metal plates and sewn onto linen or chainmail. Scale armor (»lorica squamata«) was particularly popular with the cavalry and higher ranking officers.

Protection of the head was provided by iron and bronze helmets which were called »galea« and »cassis«. To deflect hits and to attach the crest, which was mostly dyed red or black, they sported studs or forked crest holders. Neck guards and cheek pieces attached with hinges offered additional protection.

Another means of deflection was the shield, which was often painted with the symbols of the respective unit. Roman foot soldiers used the rectangular, semi-cylindrical »scutum.« It was built from several layers of wood covered with linen, but most importantly also with leather, to provide optimum protection from hits. On a march, soldiers would carry their shields wrapped in a case tied to their backs with two leather strips.

The major weapon of the Roman soldier was the »gladius,« a sword with a wide blade worn on the right side that the Romans had adopted from the Celtiberians in the third century BC. Its scabbard, which was made of two leather-clad slats, was clad in sheet metal at the rim, called the chape. The lower end of the scabbard holding the sword tip was reinforced and often adorned. In addition to his sword, the legionnaire carried a dagger, the »pugio,« on his belt. Centurions carried their pugio on the right side, because they kept their sword on the left side.

The »pilum« was the Roman legions’ heavy throwing spear. The spear shaft was made of wood and the tip was made from a piece of iron attached to it. The entire weapon had a length of more than two meters and weighed between one and three kilograms. A higher weight would enhance their penetration power. The distance a trained Roman legionnaire could cover by throwing a pilum is estimated to have been more than 26 meters. It is rather safe to assume that especially trained soldiers threw the pila on the front line, while the distances to be covered in battle would have been shorter. When the pilum hit an enemy’s shield and penetrated it, the unhardened iron tip would bend and thus make it impossible for the enemy to reuse it. Therefore, the pilum was an important weapon used at the beginning of a battle to break up the enemy’s battle formation and to cause first significant losses.

In addition to a legionnaire’s personal weapons, catapults operated by several soldiers were used in battle. Comparable to the sporadic use of a crossbow called »manuballista,« there were other catapults. The smaller ones named »catapultae« would shoot iron-tipped bolts, while the bigger »ballista« fired stone balls and incendiary devices at walls and other fortifications. It is assumed that since Augustean time, each century went into battle equipped with smaller catapults.