In films, historical reconstructions and illustrations, Roman legionaries are dressed in red tunics. But in reality, did the ancient Romans in the army have a unified dress, which was mainly made up of red?
At the beginning, it should be noted what was symbolized by the red color. In the Romans’ sense, it was the color and symbol of Mars – the god of war and the mythological father of twins Romulus and Remus. Thus, red was of great importance in the public sphere of the Romans, who considered themselves a warlike people, coming directly from Mars.
On the battlefield the red tunic worn under the armor represented blood and strength. Certainly, the compact line of Roman infantry, dressed in red, had a psychological impact on the enemy army, which perceived it as strong and valiant.
We do not have any hard evidence that the legionaries were wearing only red (as we commonly see). You need to know that the soldiers themselves took care of their wardrobe and often, for example, received parcels from their families, including with tunics. Thus, they certainly had more than one. What’s more, there was no requirement for unified weapons and clothing. And yes, soldiers had different types of armor (depending on what they could afford) and different colors of tunics.
It also happened that the generals confiscated the fabrics in a given area and assigned them to the attire for soldiers. There was no top-down command to use only red. In addition, one should also take into account the fact that there were various access to individual dyes at different latitudes. The cheap color in Egypt did not necessarily have to cost as much as Britain.
The price itself was also a big barrier. Legionaries did not earn much money, and the tunic during service was easy to get dirty and destroyed. Probably the tunic was losing its color after many washes, and gray-bure colors predominated. It is certain that tunic in natural colors was worn, i.e. from white, through shades of gray, browns to black. During the ceremony, specially prepared snow-white tunics were set up.
The proof that the soldiers were serving in various colors of tunics is a fresco from one of the houses in Pompeii. We can see there two legionaries in white tunics, and one in red clothes.
It can certainly be said, however, that red was the most popular because of the cheapness of its production. White and dark colors (i.e. dark brown) probably predominated. Among the higher command of the legion appeared more expensive – “red scarlet”. The most expensive purple, in turn, was reserved for generals, and later only for emperors.
When it comes to Roman soldiers and rowers serving in the sea fleet, we know that they had blue tunics thanks to a Vegetius (writer from the 4th century CE).