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Did Roman legionaries wear red tunics?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Did Roman legionnaires wear red clothes?
Did Roman legionnaires wear red clothes?

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?

In the beginning, it should be noted what was symbolized by the red colour. In the Romans’ sense, it was the colour 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 warlike people, coming directly from Mars.

On the battlefield, the red tunic worn under the armour represented blood and strength. Certainly, the compact line of the 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 wardrobes and often, for example, received parcels from their families, including 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 armour (depending on what they could afford) and different colours of tunics.

It also happened that the generals confiscated the fabrics in a given area and assigned them to the attire of soldiers. There was no top-down command to use only red. In addition, one should also take into account the fact that there was various access to individual dyes at different latitudes. The cheap colour in Egypt did not necessarily have to cost as much as in 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 colour after many washes, and grey-bure colours predominated. It is certain that tunic in natural colours was worn, i.e. from white, through shades of grey, browns to black. During the ceremony, specially prepared snow-white tunics were set up.

The proof that the soldiers were serving in various colours 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.

Fresco from the Doctor’s House in Pompeii showing three Roman soldiers: two in white tunics and one in red tunic..

It can certainly be said, however, that red was the most popular because of the cheapness of its production. White and dark colours (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).


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