Each class of Roman soldier had a particular set of armour and weaponry (“panoplia”). Much like the Roman weapons, Roman armor (written “armour” in England) underwent great change through the ages. We describe some of the items of Roman armor below:
Upper body armour:
Through the ages the preferred type of Roman armor and chain mail changed in shape and construction: The earliest type being the breast plate, then replaced by the simple chain mail (lorica hamata) which remained a long time favourite particularly with auxiliary troops and cavalry…..
A handkerchief was often worn tied around the neck in order to reduce chafing of the armour.
- Breast plate: Polibius (book 6, 23) tells us all foot soldiers wore a square breast plate of approximately 25cm in width
- Chain mail (Lorica Hamata) : All soldiers who could afford one would likely wear chain mail rather than the breast plate to protect the upper body, this was both resistant, relatively light and (very importantly) didin’t impede agility and movement during hand-to-hand combat.
- The more well-known Roman armour is the one made of horizontal strips of metal joined by leather straps/metal rings: It was known as the “Lorica Segmentata” and was in regular use during the height of the Roman empire but lasted a relatively short period of time and replaced again by chain mail.
- The final years of the roman empire saw a more frequent use of the “Lorica Squamata” ie with metal plates rather like scales on a fish.
A belt known as “cingulum” around the waist was used both to alleviate the weight of the armour as well as to carry the gladius and dagger.
various forms of shield were used, according to need and also according to the epoch. Originally Roman shields were the large round bronze type as used by Etruscans and Greeks. This was replaced by different types of shields such as…
- The Scutum shield: At first an elongated oval shape (“Ovata”) or even round (non Roman “clypeus”), then became the more popular square/half cylinder shields (“Imbricata”) and in the later years returned to an oval shape.It was approximately 1.2meters in height and 60 in width. It was made out of plywood (yes plywood!) covered with canvas and leather. The centre was thicker than the edges which were relatively flexible. However the edges were rendered resistant to knocks by a metal edge. A wooden rib known as “spina” ran down the middle from top to bottom to provide extra tensile strength along the length of the shield. A final detail to be used offensively was a central metal bulb known as “umbo“.These details all had their particular reasons and in spite of its rather extreme weight (10kg) made the shield particularly effective in battle: we can imagine the soldier being able to defend his body well with it as it would have been almost entirely protected by the length of the shield. The enemy blade would be deflected off the top of the shield, the Roman would then thrust the umbo into the enemy’s face, the enemy would be pushed back with the chin upwards, the Roman would then jab the gladius into the enemy stomach/chest/side.
- Round shield: this was known as the “Parma”, about 1m in diameter, made of wood with a leather covering. It would probably have been more used by the lightly armed Velites rather than the heavily armed Hastati, Principes and Triarii.
The shape of this changed through the ages, starting with something closer to the greek/Etruscan/corinthian plumed helmet. The plume “peplum” could reach as high as 50cm above the helmet, with the objective of rendering the soldier taller and more fearsome to adversaries.
- The Velites would likely have used something a little simpler and cheaper known as a “Galea” or “Galerus”. It consisted of a light casque made of leather, possibly allowing the wearer to appear like a wolf: frightening to the enemy and recognizable to their own allies and comrades.
Shin guards or Greaves known as Ocreae.
Various Roman writers relate that foot soldiers wore 1 shin guard only on their leading leg – the left. Those who could afford it would wear two, covering the lower leg right up to and including the knee as shown in the attached image.