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Roman military equipment

Roman equipment from the early 1st century CE
Roman weapons from the early 1st century CE | Illustration: Jeh (J. E.) Bruce

Every soldier who entered the battle had to be properly equipped. Over the centuries, the development of Roman soldiers’ armament changed as in a kaleidoscope. However, it was really after the Marius’ reform the army of Rome gained importance. Perfectly trained, she also needed excellent equipment, which together with a talented soldier formed an impassable barrier.

Legionary from the beginning of the republic differed significantly from his colleague, for example, from the 2nd century CE. However, the changes mainly concerned the quality of individual elements, as well as the style of armament. The basic elements of armament have always been:

  • helmet (galea)
  • shield (scutum) first round, then rectangular; a small officer’s shield (parma)
  • armor – scale or chain mail armor (lorica hamata), then segmented armor (lorica segmentata). Armor consisting of a caftan and riveted rings (lorica storta), armor with steel scales riveted to a leather caftan (lorica squamata), segmental hand protection (< em> lorica manica) and very small tanks scale armor, intended for the command (lorica plumata)
  • heavy spear (hasta) or javelins (pilum)
  • short, double-edged sword (gladius); long, also double-edged sword (spat (h) a) used by Roman cavalry
  • sandals (caligae)
  • coat (sagum or sagulum), which was a rectangular piece of material or paenula (a form of Roman poncho with hood). The coat was typical Gaul clothing and was adopted by the Roman army.
Joseph Flavius​ wrote in the 1st century CE that every legionary carried in addition to weapons: a saw, basket, bucket, ax, leather belt, sickle, chain and a food ration that was supposed to last for three days.
License Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.
The belongings of soldiers in sacks – dishes, a sapper blade and food supply were carried on a wooden bar called furca.

As the military developed, the legionary’s armament was enriched with bows (arcus) and arrows (sagitae). In addition to them, a sling (fundae) and a crossbow (arcoballista) were used, which was pulled with a special instrument. Initially, they were used only by foreign troops, among which Cretan archers and Balearic slingers led the way. Later, these weapons were used by auxiliary troops.
During Marius’ activities, leggings (ocreae) were introduced, worn on the right leg, which were originally only worn by hastati and principes. During the Empire, the metal shin was replaced by leather or woolen, reaching half-calves. Feet were strapped up to the ankles.

Legionaries were additionally equipped with hoes (dolabra), shovel-pickaxes, and turf-picking shovels, in the shape of a crescent, placed on a pole. The Romans also had a device for marking out a grid of rectangles. It was called thunder. Thanks to this device, they were able to set out the plan of the camp, on the basis of which they built it very quickly. Such a device was found during excavation work in Pompeii. The aquila eagle was always kept by the 1st legion cohort.

To maximize the flexibility of legions, as a result of Marius’ reform, soldiers were ordered to carry sacks (sarcinae) with cooking utensils (vasa), a shovel and several days of food (cibaria) outside their armor. The whole was complemented by parts of dismantled war machines.

Roman army from the 3rd century CE.
Pic. Nicholas Subkov

Transformations of the Roman army

In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE Roman units at the borders underwent a significant transformation that fundamentally changed the nature and appearance of the Roman imperial army. The Roman army increasingly used horses to face and repel numerous barbaric invasions. This was primarily due to the fact that the barbarians began to use cavalry more widely in their operations.

The presence of soldiers from outside of Rome in the ranks of the army led to the widespread use of Eastern and Germanic weapons, armor and methods of combat. It is worth mentioning here, among others about spiculum borrowed from the Germans – a spear used in the late Roman army, which compared to the Roman pilum was more effective in stabbing and defending against cavalry, but also had good properties, as a javelin. The soldier wore two of these weapons.

It should be noted, however, that Roman solutions were also used by barbarians, so the transformations in the army did not take place only in one direction.

The more widespread use of cavalry meant that gladius began to be replaced by a longer, straight and double-edged sword called spatha,, used by both infantry and cavalry. Although the spatha was sharpened to inflict stab wounds, it was usually used for cuts; thanks to the longer blade there was a greater chance of reaching the rider on horseback. The Spatha was heavier than a gladius and was characterized by an educated and typical sword hilt of medium length, a thick and straight handguard, and a pommel which appeared to be a reduced form of a crossguard. Contrary to the gladius, adapted primarily to be used in a tight infantry formation under the cover of a large shield scutum, spatha was better suited for horsemen and fighting in a looser formation (it did not exclude, however, a compact formation).

By the beginning of the 4th century, Roman infantry had almost completely abandoned the rectangular scutum shield. The protection of the Roman soldier began with a shield with a round, elliptical or, more rarely, oval shape, modeled on the Germanic style. The shield weighed over 3.5 kg. Among the armor, chainmail and scale armor were the most popular.

Interestingly, Vegetius (a late Roman writer) mentions in his work “De re militari” that Roman soldiers gave up wearing armor altogether; however, this is either a mistake of the author or information suggesting that the Romans had specially designated light units.

  • Carey Brian Todd, B. Allfree Joshua, Cairns John, Wojny starożytnego świata: Techniki walki, Warszawa 2008
  • Szubelak Bronisław, Legionista Cezara: studium uzbrojenia, Częstochowa 1999
  • Żygulski Zdzisław, Broń Starożytna: Grecja, Rzym, Galia, Germania, Warszawa 1998

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