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Reconstruction of Roman legionary in movies on biblical themes

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Testudo
Testudo

One of the most famous events in human history is undoubtedly the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the early 30s of the 1st century CE. For this reason, along with the development of cinematography, many works were created to show the life of Christ: his birth, teaching, death and resurrection. Most of these works show Roman soldiers, specifically – legionarys, who most of the time appear only as a background.

It is only when Christ is handed over to Pilate on Good Friday that the legionaries become active participants in these memorable events, either as flagellants, mocking the Messiah1, or as people praising Christ2. In this work, I will address the issue of the reconstruction of these people in movies on biblical themes and compare their appearance in the movies to the actual appearance of a legionary stationed on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire.

A legionary in the east – actual armament, clothing, service

Before I turn to the above-mentioned topic, I would like to write about the greatest paradox of the whole situation. Well, no legion was stationed in Judea in the 1930s. The closest ones were stationed in Syria (e.g. legio III Gallica, legio VI Ferrata) and Egypt (legio XXII Deiotariana). It is known, however, that auxiliary troops were stationed in Judea. These were namely: ala I Sebastian, cohors I Sebastian, and 4 other auxiliary infantry cohorts3. The Jerusalem garrison itself consisted of auxilia soldiers. This means that it was the soldiers of these formations who were probably responsible for the passion of Jesus Christ (there is a small chance, however, that there were some small groups of legionaries in Judea who were stationed there in a police capacity, but there are no sources for this). However, since only legionaries are reconstructed in (not only biblical) films, I will focus on them, apart from the fact that legionaries probably did not take part in those events.

So let us introduce the figure of the eastern legionary: his everyday clothes consisted of a tunic, a belt and shoes. As for the tunics, they were of different colours and did not differ much from those used by civilians. The belt and boots, on the other hand, were typically military. Balteus took the form of a belt decorated with silver plates. It was a symbol of a legionary, so taking it off meant “suspension” in being a soldier4. Boots, meaning the leather caligae or calcei, were another soldier’s mark. Their characteristic feature was a thick, studded sole, which announced from a distance who you were dealing with.

The most famous weapon of the legionary was the short sword – called gladius by the contemporaries (for the Romans the word “gladius” simply meant “sword”, whether it was long or short). In the times discussed in this work, the Mainz type gladius was dominant, compared to its predecessor, the Spanish type, it had a shorter and wider blade (about 40 cm) and a longer and tapering point. Despite popular thinking, gladius was used not only to inflict thrusts but also cuts5.

The pilum was a heavy javelin about 2 meters long. The pilum was used by the legionaries at the beginning of the battle – Roman ranks threw javelins to pierce the opponents’ shields and rendered them useless. This was possible due to the fact that the pilum had a spindle of about 90 cm, ended with a pyramidal or flat point, which often bent when piercing the shield, which made it impossible to get rid of the spear. The maximum range was 30 meters. The pilum was not used in close combat.

The Scutum legionary’s shield was made of planed wooden slats, laminated in three alternate horizontal and vertical layers. It was covered with linen and animal skin. At the beginning of the 1st century CE, scutum took the form of a convex, rectangular plate. An important element of the shield, which was used to deal blows with the shield, was umbo, i.e. the iron, central part of the shield, most often characterized by a circular shape.

In the 1st century CE, the Roman army was dominated by three types of armour. Lorica segmentata was an armour made of iron plates. It provided good protection for the shoulders, chest and abdomen. The next armour was lorica squamata, that is, scale armour. Made of metal plates, it was very popular with centurions and other officers6. The last type of armour, lorica hamata, was the most popular in the east (segmentata never replaced it). The chain mail consisted of many chains joined together, had short sleeves and reached the thighs.

In the 1930s, most legionaries wore Gallic helmets. These were modified iron Gallic helmets of the Port and Agen types. The helmet consisted of a one-piece canopy, with “eyebrows” at the front of the canopy, and a pleated nape. The helmets also covered the cheeks and had ear holes so that the soldiers could better hear the orders of their superiors.

Roman soldiers during peace (and this was the state then in most Roman provinces in the 30s CE; peace was interrupted only in 35 years of the fight for Armenia, in which the governor of Syria, Lucius Vitellius, was involved) performed various activities to bring development and peace to the provinces. Thus, the soldiers served as messengers, performed police duty in the cities, escorted tax collectors, served the governor of the province as his consilium (centurions and tribunes at least), and built buildings and roads. In peacetime, it was difficult to find the entire legion in the camp.

Legionnaire’s reconstruction in biblical movies, overview and comparison.

The image of a Roman legionary in movies, even from the 21st century, is still based on the image created by the movies in the genre of “sword and sandals”. According to Marcus Hendrykowski’s definition, this cinema is characterized by the lack of “reliable, source reconstruction of certain events and facts, which are intertwined with what is legendary or mythical at every step”7. The greatest works of this cinema, such as “Cleopatra”, “Spartacus” or “Quo Vadis” were great commercial successes that inspired other filmmakers to create similar works. All of these films feature legionaries who will look alike in both “The King of Kings” in 1961 and “Risen” in 2016.

The most distinctive thing that biblical movies show us about the legionaries is the abundance of leather equipment. Both in the cinema of the 1960s and in 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ”, Roman milites have a surplus of weapons made of leather: armour, helmets, shields, etc. both on the left and on the right hand. There were no such hand protectors in Roman times. Before the Danish wars, manic was introduced, but such cover was not present in any of the films. Archers also wore handguards, but they were not like the ones shown in the movies. The introduction of “bracers” in the movies is probably confusing them with armillae, which were often placed on legionaries’ images. Unfortunately, bracers are even found in some reconstruction groups, which I consider to be a big mistake.

As for the armour, it is mostly leather lorica segmentata. It is therefore worth noting the appearance of a segment of iron plates in the 2016 movie “Ben Hur”. However, this fact is only a small plus, because the film is full of the above-mentioned bracers and leather elements, and the segments themselves, despite the appropriate material, are poorly made (some of them end at the chest, and others are too large). The films also show a surplus of muscular armour (these were armour consisting of a backplate and cuirass, on which a muscular male torso was carved). Of course, they are made of leather in the films. Such armour was used by tribunes, legates, praetors and governors, and usually at ceremonies or other formal events. Meanwhile, in films, for example in “The Passion of the Christ”, we see a lot of legionaries in this armour and these are not celebrations such as the anniversary of the assumption of power by Emperor Tiberius, but riots in front of the praetorium.

When it comes to helmets, they are mostly imperial-Italian helmets, which were created only in the second half of the 1st century CE. In older films, helmets imitate the pseudo-Athenian dominate, but in newer productions, they also appear, but in a minority. An advantage that should be given to such films as “The Passion of the Christ”, “Ben Hur” (2016) or “Risen” is the presentation of the transverse plume that the centurion had on his helmet.

Scutum in movies is not convex but flat. It is also slightly reduced (seen in 2016’s Ben Hura during the scene of Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem); all dials have the same pattern, looking carved. Umbo is rare. In the aforementioned “Ben Hura” it is only a small protrusion in the centre of the dial. So we should praise the creators of “Risen” for their well-reproduced umbo and decent scutum.

In films from the last century, Roman boots were shown as strapping to the knee (“King of Kings”, “The Robe”). However, in newer productions, there is a departure from what should be considered a positive change.

The rest of the elements, such as gladius, pilum, or the belt are made decently and during the session, I did not notice any major deviations from the norm.

As for the reconstruction of the events in which the legionaries took part, I will give two examples that I will discuss and evaluate. The first event was Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem in the movie Ben Hur. There we see a column of legionaries entering the city with the governor. Legionnaires inspire fear in the local population, and there are even attacks by legion dogs on the God of innocent residents. The dense atmosphere is deepened by the song sung by the soldiers, which is also supposed to scare the Jews.

The reality was quite different.

When the Roman procurator entered the city (which should be added, it was not the capital of Judea), the inhabitants welcomed him in front of the gates, and not, as in the film, they stood indifferently on the streets of the city. Even when in 66 CE the atmosphere in the city was boiling, the inhabitants wanted to go outside and greet governor Florus, but he ordered them to leave8.

The second event that can be discussed in terms of its historicity is the first scenes from the movie “Risen” showing the attack of the Roman centuria on the fortified position of the zealots. The attack is led by the main protagonist of the stands, Clavius. The legionaries approach the enemy position, the front row throws the pilum and then kneels to give way to the next row of javelin throwers. The centuria then forms a testudo that approaches the enemy’s position. A short fight scene follows where everyone fights individually. Ultimately, the Romans triumph

In fact, the attack would have been led by a centurion, and the tribune, even nominally he would have been in command, would have stood at the back, for an aristocrat would not have risked his life without gaining any glory. Throwing pilum is more like a 17th-century counter march with muskets. In fact, the pilum throw was the last point before a direct charge at the enemy. Testudo is well depicted, while the Romans fighting upstairs would definitely try to form a formation to gain an advantage over the enemy.

Summary

As you can see, the Roman legionary in biblical movies is not portrayed entirely according to history. One type of armour still dominates, using only leather items, and the legionary misrepresentation in combat and in non-combat time prevails. However, it cannot be said that nothing is developing. Since the sword and sandal cinema, some improvements have been made, especially in terms of the soldier’s armament, and on non-military grounds (the use of Latin in “The Passion of the Christ”). Perhaps in a few years, a film will be made in which someone will put on chain mail, take off unnecessary bracers and say in liquid, ancient Latin at Golgotha: “Vere hic homo iustus erat”.

Author: Mateusz Śniadach (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Footnotes
  1. J 19, 1-4
  2. Łk 23, 47
  3. Mateusz Byra, Powstanie w Judei 66-74 n.e. Wydawnictwo Atryda, 2022, str.54
  4. Ross Cowan, Legionista Rzymski 58 przed Chr.-69 po Chr. Wydawnictwo Napoleon V. 2018, str. 24
  5. Tamże, str. 28
  6. Mateusz Byra, Powstanie w Judei 66-74 n.e. Wydawnictwo Atryda, 2022, str. 111
  7. Marek Hendrykowski, Gatunki filmowe (43). Peplum, „Film”, 7, 2000, s. 44.
  8. Mateusz Byra, Powstanie w Judei 66-74 n.e. Wydawnictwo Atryda, 2022, str. 55
Sources
  • Mateusz Byra, Powstanie w Judei 66-74 n.e. Wydawnictwo Atryda, 2022
  • Ross Cowan, Legionista Rzymski 58 przed Chr.-69 po Chr. Wydawnictwo Napoleon V. 2018
  • Marek Hendrykowski, Gatunki filmowe (43). Peplum, „Film”, 7, 2000
  • Raffaele D’Amato, Rzymskie oddziały w prowincjach wschodnich (1) 31 przed Chr.-195 po Chr. Wydawnictwo Napoleon V, 2018
  • Ross Cowan, Roman Battle Tactics 109bc-AD 313, Osprey Publishing, 2007

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