Roman Weapons & Armor
The equipment used by the Roman army changed significantly over Rome's many centuries of existence. These changes reflected changes in technology and tactics. Interestingly, military supplies were a large export of ancient Rome, with evidence of short swords being sold to the Germanic and northern tribes.
A wide array of weapons were used by Roman soldiers. This became especially true after the auxiliary was introduced and specialized units were sourced from around the Roman Empire.
Swords (Gladius & Spatha)
The gladius was the primary weapon of the Roman legions. The gladius was a short, two-sided sword used during the late Roman Republic and much of the Roman Empire. It was between 40 and 60 centimeters in length. The earliest gladius can be dated to the early Roman Kingdom in the seventh century BCE.
The gladius consisted of several components: the hilt, rivet-knob, pommel, handgrip and handguard. The construction of a gladius was complex. To create a sword which was both strong and flexible, the blacksmith would use several hard steals for the outer layers of the sword with softer steel for the center.
The spatha was a longer sword closer to a meter in length. This weapon was used by some auxiliary units during the early Roman Empire and later used by legionary infantry in the third century CE and later.
During the era of the maniple (315 BCE to 107 BCE), the front line of the Roman infantry, the hastati carried several pila which they would launch into the enemy before engaging in hand to hand combat. This tactic continued with auxiliary infantry and some legionary infantry carrying pila to throw before battle.
A pilum could be thrown between twenty-five and thirty meters, it weighed roughly two kilograms and could cause significant damage. It had a long wooden shaft, was two meters long with a metal shank attached at the end.
In battle this weapon's use was twofold. Firstly, this weapon was an effective killing tool. Secondly, the metal shank was soft so that on impact it would warp and bend, meaning that if it penetrated an enemy soldier's shield, it would be difficult to remove. This rendered the shield useless and it would have to be disposed of.
The Roman spear was a wooden shaft (either ash or hazel) attached to an iron head. Spears were the weapon of choice of the early Roman phalanx (756 BCE to 315 BCE). The spear was widely used throughout Italy as the primary weapon of most armies. The Roman cavalry also utilized spears along with some auxiliary infantry of the Roman Empire.
The Roman dagger (pugio) originated from the Iberian peninsula. Usually fifteen to thirty centimeters long and five centimeters wide. The pugio would be used in very close quarters combat when a soldier had either lost or was unable to use his gladius.
Soldiers carried various tools with them to assist in carrying out daily tasks, such as, clearing away debris, chopping down trees, etc. The dolabra was a tool carried by all soldiers. This was a double sided tool with an ax on one side and a pickaxe on the other side. Other tools such as knives with sharp hooks were carried to cut branches for firewood.
The design of the Roman helmet changed over the centuries. During the Roman Kingdom and the early Roman Republic, it was based on an Etruscan design. After the Marian Reforms (107 BCE), there were two widely used helmets. A lighter helmet used mainly by cavalrymen and a heavier helmet used by infantry which had a thicker rim and a neck guard to protect soldiers. Beneath the helmet soldiers would wear padding to ensure that it fit perfectly and also to make it more comfortable.
Two commonly used helmets used by the Roman army were the Coolus helmet and the Weisenau helmets.
There were a wide variety of metal body armors used throughout the ancient world. Body armor provided a large amount of protection against both ranged and close combat attacks. To reduce the discomfort of wearing heavy metal; soldiers would have worn an undergarment to limit chafing.
Roman shields were made by gluing several layers of wood together (oak, ash, cedar, and alder were commonly used). During most of the Roman Republic, a large oval shield was used. One problem with gluing several layers of wood together would be its vulnerability to water. To overcome this issue, a piece of leather would be stretched across the shield to protect it, significantly increasing its lifespan.
The cavalry of ancient Rome used a round shield known as a parma shield. It was about ninety centimeters in diameter and had an iron rim. This type of shield was also used by other units of the Roman army at different periods in time.
The scutum was the shield of choice of legionaries. This was a large rectangular shield which weighed about ten kilograms and about half a centimeter thick. The scutum provided extensive protection to the left hand side of a soldier, allowing him to thrust with his gladius in his right hand. The scutum was replaced with a more oblong shaped shield in the third and fourth centuries CE.
It was constructed of three layers of wood which would be glued together using cattle glue. Leather would then be stretched across the shield to extend its lifespan. The scutum had a metal hemispherical boss which would significantly strengthen the shield.
Wool was one of the most common materials used in Roman military clothing. Other materials such as linen and silk were less common due to their expense. Most of the time, clothing was left undyed in its original color. However, white, purple, red, blue, green and yellow dyes were not uncommon.
During the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire tunics would have either been short-sleeved or sleeveless and cut above the knee. If the garment was loose and there was excess fabric it would be bunched at the back of the neck and tied. This was an important skill, and if done incorrectly it would cause significant discomfort when worn under armor. As the Roman Empire progressed into the third and fourth centuries, long-sleeved tunics became the norm.
Cloaks were made from thick wool and served a couple of functions. Firstly, they provided much needed warmth for soldiers serving in the colder northern provinces. Secondly, they provided extra protection against attack. There is also evidence of slingers using the folds in their cloaks to hold ammunition. Two types of cloaks were predominantly used in the Roman army:
Any soldier who wore metal armor would also wear quilted linen padding stuffed with wool underneath. The main issue with this padding was that if it got wet it would take a long time to dry out. To prevent this, soldiers often wore a leather garment on top of it.
This padding served several functions:
During the Roman Kingdom and the early Roman Republic, soldiers would have to provide their own equipment and thus poorer soldiers would have often just wrapped strips of cloth and leather around their feet for protection.
The caligae was a military sandal that was distributed by the Roman state following the Marian Reforms in 107 BCE. It was cut from a single animal hide and was thick enough to provide protection from sharp objects on the ground. It was fastened using a leather strap.
In the northern provinces, socks were introduced. Either made from wool or linen they would be wrapped around the foot and lower leg to provide extra warmth.
Roman soldiers would have worn various other articles of clothing: