Roman military personal equipment: Wikis


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Roman military personal equipment was produced in large numbers to established patterns and used in an established way. These standard patterns and uses were called the res militaris or disciplina. Its regular practice during the Roman Republic and Roman Empire led to military excellence and victory. The general word for army became exercitus, "exercise." Roman equipment (especially armor) gave them "a distinct advantage over their barbarian enemies." [1] This did not imply that every Roman soldier had better equipment than the richer men among his opponents. According to Edward Luttwak, Roman equipment was not of a better quality than that used by the majority of its adversaries.[2]

Initially they used weapons based on Greek and Etruscan types. On encountering the Celts they based new varieties on Celtic equipment. To defeat the Carthaginians they constructed an entire fleet de novo based on the Carthaginian model. Once a weapon was adopted it became standard. The standard weapons varied somewhat during Rome's long history, but the equipment and its use were never individual.


Overview of infantry

Reenactment of a Roman legion attack.

Vegetius, 4th century C.E. author of De Re Militari, describes the equipment he believed had been used by heavy and light infantry earlier in the empire. The names of some weapons have been changed from the Latin to the Greek forms and Greek names have been preferred, for unknown reasons, perhaps because the center of Roman military power had shifted from Rome to Constantinople. Vegetius says in translation[3]:

The infantry (armatura) was heavy, because they had helmets (cassis), coats of mail (catafracta), greaves (ocrea), shields (scutum), larger swords (gladius maior), which they call broadswords (spatha), and some smaller, which they name half-broadswords (semispathium), five weighted darts (plumbata) placed in the shields, which they hurl at the beginning of the assault, then double throwables, a larger one with an iron point of nine ounces and a stock of five and one-half feet, which was called a pilum, but now is called a spiculum, in the use of which the soldiers were especially practiced, and with skill and courage could penetrate the shields of the infantry and the mail of the cavalry. The other smaller had five ounces of iron and a stock of three and one-half feet, and was called a vericulum but now is a verutum. The first line, of hastati, and the second, of principes, were composed of such arms. Behind them were the bearers (ferentarius) and the light infantry, whom now we say are the supporters and the infantry, shield-bearers (scutum) with darts (plumbata), swords (gladius) and missiles, armed just as are nearly all soldiers today. There were likewise bowmen (sagittarius) with helmet (cassis), coat of mail (catafracta), sword (gladius), arrows (sagitta) and bow (arcus). There were slingers (funditor) who slung stones (lapis) in slings (funda) or cudgel-throwers (fustibalus). There were artillery-men (tragularius), who shot arrows from the manuballista and the arcuballista.

In the late Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire, most Roman infantry used swords (gladii) and specialized throwing spears (pila) as their main weapons. In the middle and Late Roman Empire, most Roman infantry used thrusting spears as their main weapons.[4]

Personal weapons


Reconstruction of a pugio: a Roman soldier from a northern province.

A pugio was a small dagger used by Roman soldiers. It was probably a sidearm. Like other items of legionary equipment, the dagger underwent some changes during the 1st century. Generally, it had a large, leaf-shaped blade 18 to 28 cm long and 5 cm or more in width. A raised midrib ran the length of each side, either simply standing out from the face or defined by grooves on either side. It was changed by making the blade a little thinner, about 3mm, and the handle was also made out of metal with leather or cloth over it. The tang was wide and flat initially, and the grip was riveted through it, as well as through the shoulders of the blade.

Around 50 C.E., a rod tang was introduced, and the hilt was no longer riveted through the shoulders of the blade. This in itself caused no great change to the pugio's appearance, but some of these later blades were narrower (under 3.5 cm wide), and/or had little or no waisting, and/or had reduced or vestigial midribs.

Throughout the period the outline of the hilt remained approximately the same. It was made with two layers of horn or wood sandwiching the tang, each overlaid with a thin metal plate. Occasionally the hilt was decorated with engraving or inlay. Note that the hilt is 10-12 cm long overall and that the grip is quite narrow; it will always seem to be too small.


Re-enactor with Pompeii type gladius.

Gladius became the general Latin word for " spanish sword". In the Roman Republic it referred (and refers today) specifically to the short sword, 60 cm (24 inches) long, used by Roman legionaries from the 3rd century BCE. Several different designs came to be used; among collectors and historical reenactors, the three primary kinds are known as the Mainz gladius, the Fulham gladius, and the Pompeii gladius (these names refer to where or how the canonical example was found). More recent archaeological finds have uncovered an earlier version, the gladius hispaniensis ("Spanish sword").


A spatha could be any sword (in late Latin) but most often one of the longer swords characteristic of the middle and late Roman Empire. In the 1st Century, Roman Cavalry started using these longer swords, and in the 4th Century, Roman infantry also switched, mostly to spears, but some to longer swords.[5][6]

Shorter weapons (short swords and possibly sometimes daggers) were known as semispathae or half-swords. A large 3rd-Century hoard from Künzing included one triangular-bladed shortsword and several narrow-bladed short swords (with 23-39 cm blades). Bishop & Coulston suggest that some or all were made from broken spathae.[7][8]

Spears & Javelins


Hasta is a Latin word meaning a thrusting spear. Hastae were carried by early Roman Legionaries, in particular they were carried by and gave their name to those Roman soldiers known as Hastati. However, during Republican times, the hastati were re-armed with pila and gladii and only the Triarii still used hastae.

A hasta was about six feet in length with a shaft generally made from ash, the head was of iron.


Although Romans often used the word pila to refer to all thrown javelins, the term pilum also means specifically the heavy Roman throwing spear of the legions. Lighter, shorter javelins existed, such as those used by the velites and the early legions. They specifically were called veruta.


The pilum (plural pila) was a heavy javelin commonly used by the Roman army in ancient times. It was generally about two meters long overall, consisting of an iron shank about 7 mm in diameter and 60 cm long with pyramidal head. The iron shank may be socketed or more usually widens to a flat tang, this was secured to a wooden shaft. A pilum usually weighed between two and four kilograms, with the versions produced during the Empire being a bit lighter.

Pila were designed to penetrate both shield and armour, wounding the wearer, but if they simply stuck in a shield they could not easily be removed. The iron shank would bend upon impact, weighing down the enemy's shield and also preventing the pilum from being immediately re-used.


The sagittarius was armed with the bow (arcus), shooting an arrow (sagitta) with a wooden shaft and iron head. The normal weapon of Roman archers was the classic composite bow[9], made of horn, wood, and sinew held together with hide glue. However, Vegetius recommends training recruits "arcubus ligneis", with wooden bows. The reinforcing laths for the composite bows are found throughout the empire.


Late infantrymen often carried half a dozen lead-weighted throwing-darts called plumbatae (from plumbum = "lead"), with an effective range of ca. 30 m, well beyond that of a javelin. The darts were carried clipped to the back of the shield.[10]

Torso armor

Not all troops wore torso armour. Light infantry, especially in the early Republic, wore little or no armour. This was both to allow swifter movement for light troops and also as a matter of cost.

scale armour

Some legionary soldiers of the 1st and 2nd centuries used lorica segmentata or laminated-strip cuirass. This was a complex piece of armour which provided superior protection to the other types of Roman armour, chain mail (lorica hamata) and scale armour (lorica squamata). Testing of modern replicas have demonstrated that this kind of armour was impenetrable to most direct and missile strikes. It was, however, uncomfortable: reenactors have discovered that chafing renders it painful to wear for longer than a few hours at a time. It was also expensive to produce and difficult to maintain.[11] In the 3rd century, the segmentata appears to have been dropped and troops are depicted wearing chain mail (mainly) or scale, the standard armour of the 2nd century auxilia. The artistic record shows that most late soldiers wore metal armour, despite Vegetius' statement to the contrary. For example, illustrations in the Notitia show that the army's fabricae (arms factories) were producing mail armour at the end of the 4th century.[12] Actual examples of both scale armour and quite large sections of mail have been recovered, at Trier and Weiler-La-Tour respectively, within fourth century contexts.[13] Officers generally seem to have worn bronze or iron cuirasses, as in the days of the Principate, together with traditional pteruges.[14]

Lorica segmentata

A reenactor dressed as a Roman soldier in lorica segmentata

The lorica segmentata was a type of kit primarily used in the Roman Empire, but the Latin name was first used in the 16th century (the ancient form is unknown). The armor itself consist of broad ferrous (iron, but steel in modern recreations) strips ('girth hoops') fastened to internal leather straps. The strips were arranged horizontally on the body, overlapping downwards, and they surrounded the torso in two halves, being fastened at the front and back by means of brass hooks, which were joined by leather laces. The upper body and shoulders were protected by additional strips ('shoulder guards') and breast- and backplates. The form of the armor allowed it to be stored very compactly, since it was possible to separate it into four sections. During the time of its use, it was modified several times, the currently recognised types being the Kalkriese (c. 20 BC to 50), Corbridge (c. 40 to 120), and Newstead (c. 120 to possibly the early 4th-Century) types. There is also a little-known fourth type, known only from a statue found at Alba Julia in Romania, where there appears to have been a hybrid form, the shoulders being protected by scale armor and the torso hoops being fewer in number and deeper.

The earliest evidence of the lorica segmentata being worn is around 9 BCE (Dangstetten), and the armor was evidently quite common in service until the 2nd century CE, judging from the number of finds throughout this period (over 100 sites are known, many of them in Britain). However, even during the 2nd century CE, the segmentata never replaced the lorica hamata - thus the hamata ring-mail was still standard issue for both heavy infantry and auxiliaries alike. Roman soldiers, however, bought their own gear and therefore a group of men would not present the sort of 'uniform' appearance we are used to today. The last recorded use of this armor seems to have been for the last quarter of the 3rd century AD (Leon, Spain).

There are two opinions as to who used this form of armor. One is that only legionaries (heavy infantry of the Roman Legions) and Praetorians were issued with the lorica segmentata. Auxiliary forces would more commonly wear the Lorica hamata which is mail, or Lorica squamata (scale armor). The second viewpoint is that both legionaries and auxiliary soldiers used the segmentata armor and this latter view is supported, to some degree, by archeological findings. The Lorica segmentata offered greater protection than the Lorica hamata for about half of the weight, but was also more difficult to produce and repair. The expenses attributed to the segmentata may account for the reversion to ring-mail after the 3rd-4th century. Alternatively, all forms of armor may have fallen into disuse as the need for heavy infantry waned in favour of the speed of mounted troops.

Lorica hamata

Detail of chainmail. Replica from second century AD.

The Lorica hamata is a type of chain mail armour used during the Roman Republic continuing throughout the Roman Empire as a standard-issue armour for the primary heavy infantry legionaries and secondary troops (Auxilia). They were mostly manufactured out of iron, sometimes bronze. The rings were linked together, alternating closed washer-like rings with riveted rings. This produced a very flexible, reliable and strong armour. Each ring had an inside diameter of between 5 and 7 mm, and an outside diameter of about 7 to 9 mm. The shoulders of the Lorica hamata had flaps that were similar to those of the Greek 'Linothorax'; they ran from about mid-back to the front of the torso, and were connected by brass or iron hooks which connected to studs riveted through the ends of the flaps. Several thousand rings would have gone into one Lorica Hamata.

The manufacture of mail may have originated from the Celts.

Although labor-intensive to manufacture, it is thought that, with good maintenance, they could be continually used for several decades. Its utility was such that the later appearance of the famous Lorica Segmentata -- which afforded greater protection for a third of the weight -- never led to the disappearance of the ubiquitous mail, and in fact the army of the late Empire reverted to the Lorica Hamata once the Segmentata had fallen out of fashion.

Lorica squamata

Roman scale armour fragment.
Detail of a fragment. Each plate has six holes and the scales are linked in rows. Only the "lower most" holes are visible on most scales, while a few show the pair above and the ring fastener passing through them.

The Lorica squamata is a type of scale armour used during the Republic and at later periods. It was made from small metal scales sewn to a fabric backing. It is typically seen on depictions of standard bearers, musicians, centurions, cavalry troops, and even auxiliary infantry, but could be worn by regular legionaries as well. A shirt of scale armour was shaped in the same way as a lorica hamata, mid-thigh length with the shoulder doublings or cape.

The individual scales (squamae) were either iron or bronze, or even alternating metals on the same shirt. They could be tinned as well, one surviving fragment showing bronze scales that were alternately tinned and plain. The metal was generally not very thick, 0.5 mm to 0.8 mm (0.02 to 0.032 in) perhaps being a common range. Since the scales overlapped in every direction, however, the multiple layers gave good protection. The size ranged from as small as 6 mm (0.25 in) wide by 1.2 cm tall up to about 5 cm (2 in) wide by 8 cm (3 in) tall, with the most common sizes being roughly 1.25 by 2.5 cm (1.5 to 1 in). Many have rounded bottoms, while others are pointed or have flat bottoms with the corners clipped off at an angle. The scales could be flat, or slightly domed, or have a raised midrib or edge. All the scales in a shirt would generally be of the same size; however, scales from different shirts may vary significantly.

The scales were wired together in horizontal rows that were then laced or sewn to the backing. Therefore, each scale had from four to 12 holes: two or more at each side for wiring to the next in the row, one or two at the top for fastening to the backing, and sometimes one or two at the bottom to secure the scales to the backing or to each other.

It is possible that the shirt could be opened either at the back or down one side so that it was easier to put on, the opening being closed by ties. Much has been written about scale armour’s supposed vulnerability to an upward thrust, but this is probably greatly exaggerated.

No examples of an entire lorica squamata have been found, but there have been several archaeological finds of fragments of such shirts and individual scales are quite common finds - even in non-military contexts.

Limb armour


From early Imperial times to after the fall of the Western Empire, some troops wore segmented armour on one or both arms.


Greaves, sheet metal protecting the legs, were widely used in the late Republic, and by some troops in the Imperial army.





A light shield used by Roman auxiliaries.


Cavalry parade helmet, latter half of the 2nd century AD, from the German limes.

Roman helmets, galea or cassis, varied greatly in form. One of the earliest types was the Montefortino helmet used by the Republic armies up to the first century BC. This was replaced directly by the Coolus helmet, which "raised the neck peak to eye level and set a sturdy frontal peak to the brow of the helmet"[15 ].


  • Tunic: basic garment worn under the armour by all soldiers in the Republic and early Empire. Normally made of wool. Tunics originally consisted simply of a long piece of rectangular cloth sewed to an identical piece, with holes for the arms and head left unsewn. Later, it became fashionable for tunics to be produced with sleeves, and worn with braccae.
  • Focale: scarf worn by Roman legionaries to protect the neck from chafing caused by constant contact with the soldier's armor (typically lorica hamata or lorica segmentata) and helmet.
  • Cloak: two types of cloaks were used, the sagum and the paenula. Both were made from wool, which insulated and also contained natural oil to repel water. It was fastened by fibulae. The paenula was hooded in colder climates.
  • Caliga: military boots worn by Roman legionaries and auxiliaries throughout the history of the Roman Republic and Empire. The boots were made from leather and laced up the center of the foot and onto the top of the ankle. Iron hobnails were hammered into the sole.


Marching packs of two soldiers illustrated on Trajan's Column showing loculus, cloak bag, patera, cooking pot and "netted object".

Military pack carried by legionaries. The pack included a number of items suspended from a furca or carrying pole. Items carried in the pack include:

  • Water skin: Roman camps would typically be built near water sources, but each soldier would have to carry his water for the day's march in a waterskin.
  • Food: Each legionary would carry some of his food. Although a Roman army on the move would typically have a baggage train of mules or similar to carry supplies such as food, after the Marian reforms legionaries were required to carry about 15 days worth of basic food supplies with them. Most basic foot soldiers had to carry the food in a sarcina or pack.
  • Cooking equipment: Including a patera (mess tin), cooking pot and skewer. A patera was a broad, shallow dish used for drinking, primarily in a ritual context such as a libation.
  • Entrenching tools: Carried by legionaries to construct fortifications and dig latrines etc. Each legionary would typically carry either a shovel or dolabra (mattock) for digging, a turf cutting tool or a wicker basket for hauling earth.
  • Sudis: Stakes for construction of camps.




The ballista was a powerful ancient crossbow, powered by torsion in bundles of sinew, rather than torsion in the arms. Early versions ejected heavy darts called bolts, or spherical stone projectiles of various sizes. The Romans later developed an automatic weapon called the Scorpion, a rare shoulder variant that shot 10 arrows. A ground unit was later invented that could shoot 30 arrows in full automatic; this was also known simply as the repeating ballista.


A catapult is any siege engine which uses an arm to hurl a projectile a great distance, though the term is generally understood to mean medieval siege weapons, so the Roman "catapult" was called an onager. Projectiles included both arrows and (later) stones.



A brass instrument used in the ancient Roman army. It was originally designed as a tube measuring some 11 to 12 feet in length, of narrow cylindrical bore, and played by means of a cup-shaped mouthpiece. The tube is bent round upon itself from the mouthpiece to the bell in the shape of a broad C and is strengthened by means of a bar across the curve, which the performer grasps while playing, in order to steady the instrument; the bell curves over his head or shoulder.

The buccina was used for the announcement of night watches and various other purposes in the camp.

The instrument is the ancestor of both the trumpet and the trombone. The German word for trombone, Posaune, is derived from Buccina.


Caltrop, line drawing

A tribulus (caltrop) is a weapon made up of four sharp nails or spines arranged in such a manner that one of them always points upward from a stable base (for example, a tetrahedron). Caltrops serve to slow down the advance of horses, war elephants, and human troops. It was said to be particularly effective against the soft feet of camels[16].

The late Roman writer Vegetius, in his work De Re Militari, wrote:

The scythed chariots used in war by Antiochus and Mithridates at first terrified the Romans, but they afterwards made a jest of them. As a chariot of this sort does not always meet with plain and level ground, the least obstruction stops it. And if one of the horses be either killed or wounded, it falls into the enemy's hands. The Roman soldiers rendered them useless chiefly by the following contrivance: at the instant the engagement began, they strewed the field of battle with caltrops, and the horses that drew the chariots, running full speed on them, were infallibly destroyed. A caltrop is a machine composed of four spikes or points arranged so that in whatever manner it is thrown on the ground, it rests on three and presents the fourth upright.[17]

See also


  1. ^ Elton, Hugh, 1996, Warfare in Roman Europe, AD 350-425, p. 110
  2. ^ In Luttwak, E., The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, JHUP, 1979, Luttwak states that "Roman weapons, far from being universally more advanced, were frequently inferior to those used by... enemies
  3. ^ Book 2 Chapter 15. The nominative singular of the weapon has been placed in parentheses.
  4. ^ Stephenson, I.P., 2001, Roman Infantry Equipment: The Later Empire, p. 56
  5. ^ Stephenson, I.P., 2001, Roman Infantry Equipment: The Later Empire, Tempus, pp. 58 & 60-75.
  6. ^ M.C. Bishop & J.C.N. Coulston, 2006, Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, Oxbow Books, pp. 82-83, 130, 154-157 & 202.
  7. ^ Stephenson, I.P., 2001, Roman Infantry Equipment: The Later Empire, Tempus, p. 79.
  8. ^ M.C. Bishop & J.C.N. Coulston, 2006, Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, Oxbow Books, p. 157.
  9. ^ Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome (Paperback). M.C. Bishop, J.C. Coulston. Oxbow Books 2005. ISBN 1842171593 ISBN 978-1842171592
  10. ^ Goldsworthy (2000) 167; (2003) 205
  11. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 129
  12. ^ Notitia Oriens.XI
  13. ^ Bishop and Coulston (2006) 208
  14. ^ Elton (1996) 111
  15. ^ Santosuosso, A., Soldiers, Emperors and Civilians in the Roman Empire, Westview, 2001, p.131
  16. ^ Rawlinson, George. The Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 6. (of 7): Parthia.  
  17. ^ "ARMED CHARIOTS AND ELEPHANTS". The Military Institutions of the Romans Book III: Dispositions for Action.  


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