Armor Of Ancient Rome Armor of Ancient Rome Ancient Rome expended a great deal of economic resources and effort upon conquest and expansion through military means. The role of armor was fundamental in this expansion as it played a significant role in the success of the Roman armies on the battlefield. There were three common requirements for armor construction throughout its history: The first was that armor had to be flexible enough to allow the wearer freedom of movement; second, it also had to be lightweight enough to be worn without tiring the wearer while providing protection against opponents’ weapons; and third, armor had to be cost effective. These three aspects influenced the evolution of Roman cuirass (lorica) design throughout Rome’s history. The central concept in the study of Roman armor is that it was always a compromise between mobility, protection, and cost. There were at least four cuirass types in use during the first century A.D. These were the muscle, scale, mail, and segmented cuirasses with mail and segmented cuirasses being the most predominant.
The study of these armor types relies upon three main sources of evidence: iconographic (e.g., sculpture, tombstones, monuments); archaeological; and literary sources. The evolution of Roman lorica was driven by the needs and circumstances of the Roman Army. Armies of the 1st century A.D. were firmly established within the Empire and control fell solely under the auspices of the Emperor. Increasingly the main strength of the Roman army, up to thirty legions, was garrisoned on the frontiers. Only a token military force, the Praetorian Guard, remained in Rome.
The military situation in this period was seldom dormant. In the 1st century the invasion of Britain (A.D.43) necessitated the reorganization of legions and auxiliaries over much of north west Europe. Further reorganization occurred after the civil war of A.D.69, when the victorious Flavian dynasty dispersed disloyal units. As the Empire’s expansion slowed, permanent borders were established. Auxiliaries patrolled the borders and legionnaires were stationed within the frontiers to act as a strategic reserve and intimidate potentially rebellious provinces.
The army can be divided into two distinct parts: the legion and the auxiliary ( auxilia), with a marked social division existing between the two. Only Roman citizens could become legionnaires, while auxilia were composed of non citizens recruited from Rome’s client states and tribes. These legions were supported by the non citizen auxilia consisting of infantry cohorts and cavalry (alae). A legion consisted of around 5,000 men which were mostly heavy foot soldiers. However, it is only possible to attempt a rough estimate of the men who constituted a legion. It has been estimated that the total number of Roman troops, including legions and auxilia, numbered more than 300,000 during the first century A.D.
It has also been assumed that the legionary and auxiliary troops were equipped differently. This notion is based on evidence from a single source, Trajan’s column, which shows clear distinctions between legionary and auxiliary equipment. The early view put forward by historians such as Webster was that the equipment issued to legionnaires was remarkably uniform throughout the empire. However, the archaeological evidence does not support this theory, showing that a wide range of types and ages of equipment was in use at any one time. Peterson argues that uniformity in the Roman army may have only extended to soldiers having their own serviceable body armor, helmet, weapons and shield displaying a common unit emblem. Bishop and Coulston suggest that in this period soldiers had to purchase their own equipment.
The system encouraged the individual to be more respectful of their equipment by introducing a sense of personal responsibility. Most of this equipment may have been purchased from army stock, but soldiers may have been free to buy more elaborate or expensive items from private craftsmen. As this was probably beyond the economic means of most soldiers, elaborate cuirasses have been attributed only to soldiers of centurion rank or higher. Bishop further proposes that military equipment could be sold back to the legions upon retirement or death of the owner, and therefore could be passed down to a number of different owners. He cites evidence of equipment which has been found with several owner inscriptions.
The cost of this equipment would probably have forced recycling, and in conjunction with the repair of damaged equipment this may have meant that the life of an object could be expected to last for many years. These factors also suggest that the actual production of new loricae at any one time may have been fairly low. One of the most widely recognized of these Roman lorica was the so called ‘muscle’ cuirass, probably Hellenistic in origin. This cuirass was molded on the contours of the muscles of the male chest which were reproduced in an idealized manner. This type of cuirass was probably constructed from iron or bronze, consisting of a high-waisted or hip length breastplate.
Shoulder straps hinged to the edges of the back plate, with their forward extremities tied down to rings on the breast. These plates had side fastenings with perhaps two hinges or a pair of rings joined by ties providing for the soldier’s left and right flanks. None of these metallic muscled cuirasses of the Roman period have survived in the archaeological record. However, Etruscan metal muscle cuirasses dating from 5th to the 3rd Century B.C. have been found.
Muscle cuirasses have also been believed to have been made of leather. However, a molded leather cuirass would have to be very thick and rigid to have any defensive qualities. Robinson suggests that this cuirass type was probably worn almost exclusively by emperors and top-ranking military leaders as a symbol of Roman might and sovereignty. Another type of cuirass was the lorica squamata, also known as scaled or jezeraint armor. Scale armor is perhaps the oldest type of metal body armor. Peterson proposed that its origins date to at least the 2nd millennium B.C., having a long history of use in Greece and the East.
Despite its early origins it was used throughout the entire period of Roman dominance. Scale armor was usually depicted with short sleeves, and the lower edges reaching the upper thighs. Scale armor was made from both iron and bronze. The manufacture of scale armor involved small sections of metal sheeting of varying sizes being attached by wires or riveted to their neighbors and sewn onto a suitably flexible foundation of hide or strong cloth. Early scale armor was commonly joined by small twisted links of bronze wiring, positioned in horizontal rows, overlapping upwards and layered like scales of a fish or in the manner of roof tiles.
Evidence of parts of a bronze lorica squamata was found at the site of Corstopitum (Corbridge) in Northumberland England. These scales were very small, and due to the expense incurred in manufacturing such fine armor, Simkins proposes that the man, probably an officer, no doubt would have purchased this armor himself. A similar group of 346 scales which was found in the fort of Newstead (A.D. 98-100), of yellow bronze (perhaps a result of oxidization), are larger measuring 2.9 cm by 1.2 cm. Generally, the defensive qualities of scale are inferior to mail armor, being neither as strong nor as flexible.
It was nevertheless popular throughout the Roman period, possibly because it appears that it may have been simpler to manufacture and repair than other loricae (although presumably more difficult to maintain because of its intricate construction). Experimental archaeology conducted by Massey has tested reconstructions of known arrowheads against various body defenses used in Roman times. At a range of 7 meters, Massey argues that arrowheads seemed to penetrate this armor type one out of every two occasions. He suggests that this may occur due to the shape of the scales and the way in which the scales have been assembled. Presumably the changing conditions of the test would also affect the frequency of penetration.
Further, it is concluded that tests indicated that when scale armor had been strengthened by wiring in a series of horizontal rows, none of the known contemporary arrow types could penetrate it, although the scales were severely deformed. A modern parallel would be modern body armor (kevlar), which will stop some bullets however, the impact may nonetheless cause severe trauma such as internal hemorrhaging. Archaeological finds appear to indicate that this type of armor was used much more widely than the surviving sculptures suggest, although only fragments of the armor survive. Despite this evidence the use of lorica squamatae does not appear to have been as extensive as mail. Peterson suggests that the sculptured record indicates that lorica squamata was largely the exclusive equipment of centurions and high-ranking officers between the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. Mail was also known as lorica hamata by the Romans.
It is generally accepted that the Romans acquired their knowledge of mail-making from the Celts, who were the original fabricators of this form of armor. Mail consists of metal rings, each one linked through four others, two in the row above it and two below. The fine mail of the 1st century could be made from bronze or iron rings measuring as little as 3mm in diameter. Only fragments of mail exist in the archaeological record but the sculptured record indicates that there were many variations of lorica hamata. The method of construction of mail rings in Roman times is similar to that of later periods. Warry says that mail could be made from rings of two sorts: solid rings or opened, linked rings which could be either butted or riveted shut.
Robinson proposes that the oldest and quickest method of construction is where every alternate row of rings is punched out of sheet metal and the rows connecting them are made from wire, with their ends flattened, overlapped, punched and riveted. However, there is little evidence of punched rings in the archaeological record. The Romans appear to have almost always riveted the ends of the rings together, the result being that the mail was much stronger than the butted variety, made by simply butting the wire ends together and which could be torn open quite readily. These rings could vary in size from an outside diameter ranging between 3mm and 9mm, the latter being found in post 1st century A.D. sites. There were advantages and disadvantages in using mail armor.
The rings provided excellent defense against slashing cuts and was also effective against thrusts, while remaining very flexible. As there were only interlinking rings to give it form the armor suffered little from wear and could be repaired even when badly damaged. Mail armor could be easily recycled and passed down from the legion to the auxiliary, as it would still remain functional as armor regardless of its age or even if superseded by another type. This may be indicated by the sculptured record from later periods such as Trajan’s column, which shows that earlier cuirass types were in use with the western legions during the Dacian campaigns. A disadvantage of mail over other cuirasses is that its manufacture is extremely labor intensive, perhaps taking as much as 180 hours to make a complete mail hauberk of the simplest type worn by auxiliaries from 1/4 inch stamped and butted wire rings.
Clearly armor of this type must have been a costly exercise to manufacture. While it afforded reasonable freedom of movement, it was also very heavy, weighing perhaps as much as 15pounds . The weight may have been countered by the use of a cingulum militare (a military belt), which could be drawn tightly about the waist, thereby distributing part of the weight onto the hips …