The Roman Army, Legion -

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The Roman Army



Between 5000 and 6000 men served in each of the 28 legions. The legion was the largest unit in the Roman Army at the time of Emperor Augustus. All soldiers were Roman citizens and they mainly carried out heavy infantry duties. A legion consisted of ten cohorts and four units called »turma« including 120 men in a cavalry detachment. 
The military commander of a legion was a legate called »legatus legionis«. He was assisted by two deputies: The military tribune »tribunus laticlavus« and the camp prefect »praefectus castrorum«.  Five »tribuni angusticlavi« – military tribunes belonging to the social class of Roman equestrians – were serving as staff officers. In addition to this, 200 men worked in the administration or as doctors.

The high ranking officers also had a large amount of slaves, wagons and pack animals at their disposal. This group added up to approximately 200 persons and at least 300 riding, draught and pack animals. All in all there were about 6500 men in a legion. Between 5300 and 5500 of them were soldiers.  
Each legion was designated a number, but because Emperor Augustus kept the traditional names of the older legions, some legions had the same number, i.e. Augustus had three legions called »legio III«, two called »legio IV«, two called »legio V« and two called »legio VI«. Since the early first century BC, they also had specific epithets in order to distinguish the different units. These epithets would originate from the legionaries’ home countries or from the places where they had been stationed for a long time and where they had been victorious. The military virtues were also added to their names: For example, they would be called »victrix« (victorious) or »pia fidelis« (dutiful and loyal). 
If the name of a legion was attributed, for instance, to Emperor Caesar, this did not mean that the legion continuously existed since Caesar’s reign. For example, Emperor Augustus had called up the veterans of a former Caesarian legion in order to use them as the core of a newly founded legion. They would carry Caesar's established names and symbols. The emblem of the Caesarian legions usually was a Taurus which is the Goddess Venus’ sign of the zodiac. She is the mythological founder of the Julian Imperial House. The sign of Augustus’ legions was the »capricornus«. This is Augustus‘ sign of the zodiac.




A legionnaire would mainly wear a tunica, just like a normal civilian. The linen tunica which only had short sleeves- if any- was worn over a woollen tunica. A belt enabled the legionnaire to adjust the length of the tunica. He would do this by pulling the tunica up through the inside of the belt and then let it fall over the belt on the outside. In the cold winter period they would also wear »tibilia«. These were wraparound socks - similar to spats - made of cloth or fur. (The Roman soldiers started to wear the knee-length trousers in the 2nd century AD which had been worn by the auxiliary troops for a long time.) Augustus’ soldiers liked wearing a coat called »paenula«. It was also common wear in civilian life. The coat was made of fabric similar to loden. It would be worn as a poncho with a hood. There was also a woollen scarf called »focale«. The clothing of a high ranking officer or even the Emperor himself did not differ from that of a legionnaire. The purple coat named »paludamentum« was exclusively for officers who would only wear it for special, festive occasions. 
The typical Roman military shoes were the »caligae«. Iron hobnails were hammered into the sole of these leather sandals. They were worn by foot soldiers, by the soldiers in the cavalry detachments and even by the »Centurio«. The tribunes and the legates however wore the »calceus«. These low boots covered the whole foot and were sewn out of leather.

By the way: Germanicus’ little son grew up in his father’s military camp and the soldiers, who obviously liked him, called him »Caligula«. This means »little military sandal«. Even as an Emperor he was more commonly known by his nickname »Caligula«.




A soldier’s military belt  was called »cingulum militare« and was richly decorated with metal fittings. In Augustan times the soldiers would wear two crossed-over belts. They carried a sword on the right and a dagger on the left. Many illustrations show a centurion’s »cingula« which is quite broad and does not have any weapons attached to it. Therefore, a »cingula« obviously was a type of insignia, too. A metal fastener with a long tongue was used to close the belt. The belt which carried the dagger had two additional buttons. That way, the dagger scabbard could be fixed to the belt with leather straps. The belt which carried the sword was simply pulled through the straps on the back side of the sword scabbard. The apron, hanging down from the belt and situated at the centre of the body, consisted of four to eight strips with metal fittings. However, it was not common until the middle of the first century AD. The Roman soldiers did not have aprons at the time of the Emperor Augustus and at the beginning of Emperor Tiberius’ reign.

Only the Emperor and the highest ranking officers would wear muscle armour because they were very expensive to manufacture. They were richly ornamented and the metal would shine in various colours. The common soldiers had the »lorica hamata«, a type of chain mail. This armour flexibly adapted itself to the body movement and was not only light, but also inexpensive to manufacture. It was used in the Roman Army since the second century BC. It was apparently copied from Celtic models. The chain mail would be closed with two hooks situated on the chest. It was cylindrical and cut wide. Therefore, the neck, the shoulders and the chest were additionally protected by parts underlaid with leather and attached with straps or hooks to the chain mail. The »lorica hamata« weighed between eight and nine kg (17.6–19.8 lb) and was usually belted until the middle of the first century AD. Also, at about that time, wide pauldrons were added to the chain mail. They were shaped like a cape and covered the upper arm. The »pteryges« are leather tongues which were attached to the seam of the lower tunica and to the short (apparent) sleeves for extra protection. The centurions and the signifer (standard bearer) had already been wearing them, but the legionnaires only started to wear them at the middle of the first century AD with their short »lorica«. Apart from chain mail, the Roman Army also had scale armour. It consisted of many small leather scales (up to 5cm) which were partly studded with metal. It was attached to a linen armour or to a coat of chain mail. This »lorica squamata« was popular with the cavalry and the higher ranks.

The head was protected by a helmet  made of iron or bronze. It was called »galea« and »cassis«. In order to ward off a blow and to fix the mostly red or black crest, a knob or bifurcated attachment was placed on top of the helmet. The neck guard and the cheek guards which were attached to hinges provided further protection. A linen cushion filled with horsehair was glued into the calotte as an interior lining. The neck straps were pulled through two loops underneath the neck guard. It is where a part of the crest was tied to in order to prevent it from disturbing during a fight. The neck straps were pulled to the front and through the loops on the cheek guards and then tied together under the chin. The helmet was the property of the Roman state and not of the particular soldier. Therefore, the abbreviations of the units or the names of the various soldiers who had used the helmet were engraved onto the neck guard.

Another part of the defensive armament was the shield. It was often decorated with the symbols of the combat unit. The Roman foot soldiers used the rectangular, curved »scutum«. It was constructed of several overlapping, wooden layers and a covering of linen and, most importantly, of leather which provided the necessary strength of the shield allowing it to absorb heavy blows. 

On the exterior of the shield there was a longitudinal reinforcing rib and situated at the centre of this rib there was a boss (»umbo«) which protected the handle on the interior. The edges of the shield were bound in metal to reinforce them. While marching, the shield was inside a case and tied to two straps to enable the soldiers to carry it on their backs.


Due to its size and weight, the »scutum« was unsuitable for the cavalry and for standard bearers (»signifer«). They would preferably use a smaller and rather flat, round shield named »parma”.

A Roman soldier’s main weapon was the sword which was carried on the right. The »gladius« was not very long and had a wide blade. It had been copied from Celtiberian models in the third century BC. 
The two wooden scabbards were covered in leather and had metal fittings on the rims called chape. The lower end of the scabbard – where the point of the sword rested on – was additionally strengthened and often decorated. Two sword bands with side loops were pulled through the straps and surrounded the scabbard. In Augustan times the military belt was usually pulled through these straps. The centurions however carried their swords on the left side attached to a shoulder belt (»balteus«).
In addition to the sword on the right, the legionnaire carried a dagger (»pugio«) on his belt on his left side. The centurions wore the dagger on their right side because they already had the sword on their left side. This weapon was also copied from the Iberian Celts in the third century BC. Just like the sword scabbards, the dagger scabbards were richly decorated especially in the first century AD. The sword scabbards were ornamented with metal which was shaped by using a technique called repoussé and chasing. The tinned bronze surface shimmered like silver and gold. The dagger scabbards however were ornamented with gravures, damascening, coloured enamel and niello. As a result of this and in connection with silver, this would create vivid contrasts. In spite of its obviously prestigious value for the soldiers, the dagger was not tactically important. It was rather the final and sometimes decisive weapon in close combat.

The pilum was the heavy javelin of the Roman legions. It consists of a wooden shaft and an iron shank connected to it. There were two ways of attaching the metal to the wood: Either, a spout on the iron part was pushed over the wood and then riveted to it. Or, the end of the iron shank was widened to a flat tang. This was then fitted to the wooden shaft and riveted to it. On top of this attachment, the iron continues as a long, thin shaft which has a round or rectangular profile and finally ends in a mostly pyramidal head.
Thus the whole weapon was more than two metres (6ft 7inch) long and it weighed between one and three kg (2.2–6.6 lb). This was an advantage with regard to its penetrating power. A trained Roman legionnaire had a throwing range of approximately 26 metres (28.4 yards). One has to bear in mind that presumably only especially skilled soldiers in the front line would have thrown the pila and that the distances in a battle would probably have been  shorter than 26 metres.
If the pilum hit an enemy shield and pierced it, the iron shank - which was not hardened – would bend and therefore be unusable by the enemy. Furthermore, it was difficult to pull the bent pilum out of a wooden shield. As a result of this, the enemy often had to give up his defensive armament and continue fighting without his shield. The pilum was therefore an important weapon at the beginning of a battle. Its purpose was to break through the enemy’s battle order and to cause initial, heavy casualties.

In addition to a legionnaire’s personal weapons, the Roman Army had bigger guns, too, which were operated by several soldiers. There were various types of catapults similar to the sporadically used crossbow »manuballista«: The smaller »catapultae« ejected bolts with iron heads. The »ballista« was larger and threw stone projectiles and incendiary shells. It could also be used to destroy walls and other fortifications. Presumably since Emperor Augustus’ reign each centuria carried along one of the light guns on the battlefield.