During the expansion of Rome and the acquisition of new territory, the Roman armies were often met by heavy resistance and bloody conflicts. The armies needed a type of protection that would safely protect soldiers and would ensure victory for Rome.
That is the reason armour (upper body) in particular was implemented to save soldiers on the battlefield. The armour had to meet certain standards of construction for it to be useful: Of these standards the first was that armour was to be flexible enough to allow the wearer freedom of movement in battle. Secondly, it had to be lightweight it could be worn without wearing down the soldier, while still protecting him against an opponents’ weapon: and finally, the armour had to be made at low cost. These three aspects were influential in the evolution of armour design in the Roman army. The main study point of
Roman armour is that it was a trade off between freedom of movement, protection, and cost factor. In the first century A.D. there were about four types of armour in use. The names of the different types were muscle, scale, mail, and segmented mail and the segmented breastplate being the leading type. Studying of these armour types relies upon three main sources of evidence: iconographic; archaeological; and literary source documents.
The evolution of Roman armour was influenced by the needs and circumstances of the Roman Army. Armies of the first century A.D. were finally established within the
Empire and control fell solely under the Emperor. With the increase of soldiers in the
Roman army, which was up to around thirty legions, well built armour was more in need than ever on the frontiers. The army could be divided into two distinct parts the legion and the auxiliary. Only Roman citizens could become a legionnaire, while the auxiliary were made of non citizens from Rome’s settled territories. The early view put forward by a historian named Webster was that the equipment used by the legionnaires was remarkably uniform throughout the empire. However, there has been no evidence that supports this theory, showing that a great number of types and ages of equipment was in use at anyone time. Peterson argues that uniform armour in the Roman army may have only extended to the soldiers having their own body armour, helmet, weapons and shield showing a common trademark. Bishop and Coulston suggest that in this period soldiers purchased their own equipment. This type of owning their own armour meant that the individual would be more respectful of the equipment they owned by having a sense of personal responsibility. Many of these items may have been purchased from army stock, but soldiers may have been free to buy more elaborate or expensive items from private craftsmen. This was probably beyond the economic means of most soldiers and elaborate armament has been seen only on soldiers of centurion rank or higher. It is further proposed that the military equipment would be sold back upon retirement or death of the owner, and therefore could be used by a number of different owners. The cost of new equipment would probably have implemented recycling of old armour, and with the repair of damaged armaments this may have meant that the lifespan of an object would be many years. These factors also show that production of new armour at any point in time would have been fairly low.
One of the most widely used types of the Roman armour was the so called ‘muscle’ plate. This chest armour was moulded on the contours of the muscles of the male chest. This type of armour was probably built from iron or bronze, consisting of a high-waisted or a hip length breastplate. Shoulder straps hinged to the edges of the back plate, with their forward arm protectors tied down to rings on the breast. These plates had side fastenings with two hinges or a pair of rings joined by ties providing for the soldier’s left and right flanks. None of these metallic muscled breastplates of the Roman period have survived the ravages of time. However, Etruscan metal muscle breastplates dating from the fifth to the third Century B.C. have been found. Muscle breastplates have also been believed to have been made of leather. However, a moulded leather breastplate would have to be very thick and stiff to have any defensive virtues. It is suggested that this breastplate type was probably worn almost exclusively by emperors and top-ranking military leaders as a symbol of Roman might and control.
Another type of breastplate was the scale armour, also known as jezeraint armour.
Scale armour is perhaps the oldest type of metal body armour. Peterson proposed that its origins date to at least the second millennium B.C., having a long history of use in Greece and the East. Regardless of its early origins it was used throughout the entire period of Roman control. Scale armour was usually made with short sleeves, and the lower edges reaching the upper thighs. Scale armour was made from both iron and bronze. The manufacture of scale armour involved small sections of metal sheeting of varying sizes being attached by wires or riveted to their neighbours and sewn onto a properly flexible foundation of hide or strong cloth. Early scale armour 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. Pieces of bronze scale armour were found at the site of Corbridge in Northumberland England. These scales were very small, and due to the great expense of manufacturing such fine armour, probably an officer, would have purchased this armour himself. A similar group of 346 scales which was found in the fort of Newstead (A.D. 98-100), of yellow bronze, these measured 2.9 cm by 1.2 cm. Generally the defensive qualities of scale are inferior to mail armour, 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 armour.
Experiments conducted show that arrowheads, when fired against various Roman armour at a range of seven meters one out of every two occasions, the arrowheads seemed to penetrate the type of armour. This may occur due to the shape of the scales and the way the scales may have been assembled. Archaeological finds appear to point out that this type of armour was used much more widely than the surviving sculptures suggest, although only remains of the armour survive. Despite this evidence the use of scale does not appear to have been as extensive as mail. Peterson suggests that the records indicate that mail was largely the exclusive equipment of centurions and high-ranking officers between the first and second centuries A.D.
It is commonly accepted that the Romans acquired their knowledge of mail- making from the Celts, who were the original builders of this form of armour. The foundation of 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 first century could be made from bronze or iron rings measuring as little as three millimetres in diameter. Only fragments of mail exist in the archaeological record but the sculptured record indicates that there were many variations of mail. The method of construction of mail rings in Roman times would be 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. 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 tom open quite readily. These rings could vary in size from an outside diameter ranging between three millimetres and nine millimetres, the latter being found in post first century A.D. sites. There were some advantages and disadvantages in using mail armour. The first was that the rings provided excellent defence against slashing cuts and were also effective against thrusts, while remaining very flexible. As there were only interlinking rings to give it form the armour suffered little from wear and could be repaired even when badly damaged. Mail armour could be easily recycled and passed down from the legion to the auxiliary, as it would still remain functional as armour 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 types of mail were in use with the western legions during the Dacian campaigns. A disadvantage of mail over other armour was that its construction was extremely labour intensive, perhaps taking as much as one hundred and eighty hours to make a complete mail outfit of the simplest type to be worn by auxiliaries. Obviously armour 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 fifteen pounds. The weight may have been countered by the use of a “military belt”, which could be drawn tightly about the waist, thus distributing part of the weight onto the hips and relieving the shoulders of some burden. Additionally, tests using contemporary arrow types suggest that most arrowhead types consistently penetrated the mail to a depth that would prove lethal to the wearer. However, bunching of the mail at suspension points prevented penetration of the mail beyond a depth of three -five centimetres. This would mean that the doubling of mail shoulder defences which were known to be practiced by both Romans and Celts may have saved the life of their owners. Mail was probably used extensively by legionnaires during the late Republic until the introduction of the segmented plates in Claudian times. Testing also showed that arrow shafts were occasionally locked into place by the deformed mail rings through which these had passed, which would have made them difficult to remove and the wounds considerably more difficult to treat. Mail also would not absorb the impact of a blow, unless extremely well padded by a very thick doubled layer, and the mail could also be driven into the flesh of the wearer. It is because of these disadvantages that after the introduction of segmental armour, mail was largely confined to the auxiliary troops.
The form of armour for which the first century is best known is the segmented armour breastplates. This name was not invented by the Romans but came into use during the Renaissance. It was the first type of articulated plate armour, the origins of which are unclear. The segmental armour may have found its way into the Roman army from the gladiatorial arena. The first time the Roman legionnaires came into contact with this armour may have been during the revolt of Florus and Sacrovir in 21 A.D. This revolt consisted of heavily armoured gladiators, called crupellarii, fighting against legionnaires. Tacitus described how armoured gladiators were killed by the legionnaires hacking through their segmented armour with pickaxes. It is highly possible that this form of armour was being issued as standard legionary equipment by the time the Emperor Claudius’ troops invaded Britain in A.D.43. The segmented armour was constructed of collar and shoulder units which consisted of twenty four plates and sixteen girdle plates. The latter were half semicircular iron lames, consisting of strips of iron sheet, and were positioned horizontally, riveted onto leather straps. The lames were laced at the center of the breast and back in such a way as to surround the trunk completely while still allowing the body considerable freedom of movement. The bands were kept in place by a complicated system of straps and buckles. Fastened on the inside by leather straps and fastened at the front and back with laces, buckles and straps. These fittings were usually made of a thin brass sheet. The defence was completed with two half-collars (shoulder guards) of articulated lames. Each collar consisted of a small breastplate fastened to other lames that formed a neck guard. Both of the shoulder-guards consisted of five plates. The largest upper plates were made from three pieces joined to each other by bronze hinges as were the collar units beneath.
This type of armour was superior to mail in both manufacturing and as a type of armour. However, the armour’s chief advantage was in its weight, around twelve pounds depending upon the thickness of plates used. Plates were made by hammer work, and
Bishop and Coulston note an analysis of surviving fragments of iron plates show that, they had not been hardened in any way, although the Romans are known to have been aware of this technique. They also suggest that Roman armouries deliberately produced ‘soft’ armour that could absorb the force of a blow as it crumpled. This softness allowed the metal to deform extensively, absorbing the impact of weapons and denying them the resistance needed to penetrate effectively. Tests show that none of the test arrows fired penetrated enough to cause serious injury. This effectiveness was apparently due to a combination of the softness of the metal and the internal gap between the plates. As such it may have normally been employed by particular legions, notably those fighting the Celts, whose style of fighting and use of weapons such as the long sword posed a particular threat to the head and shoulders of the line infantryman. Segmented plate armour had disadvantages as well. Most notable was the loss of protection to the thighs and upper arms. Simkins states that during the Emperor Trajan’s Dacian campaign, the Romans fought against enemies armed with long scythe-like swords called falx. These were capable of reaching past the legionnaire’s scutum (a large curved shield) to injure the unprotected sword arm. This weapon may have also endangered the soldiers’ legs which from Republican times were bare, protection here being given up for the sake of mobility. However, the Adamklissi monument suggests that legionnaires in these two campaigns may have improved their protection with segmental armguards similar to those worn by gladiators. The archaeological record provides rich evidence of this type of armour.
Excavation has provided more evidence of segmented armour than both scale and mail. The most important discovery was made in 1964, at the site of the Roman station of
Corstopitum in Northumberland (Corbridge) at Hadrian’s Wall, when two complete sets of this type were found in a wooden chest buried below the floor of a timber building of the Flavian period fort. This is the only site where this type of armour has been found in a reasonably complete state. Another pattern of segmented armour has been identified and reconstructed from fragments found in the well in the headquarters building at Newstead near Melrose in Scotland. Simkins suggests that this pattern was probably developed in the later years of the first century and is the model for the majority of representations of legionary soldiers on Trajan’s Column. It is difficult to tell how long the earlier Corbridge pattern remained in use until it was eventually replaced by the Newstead type. They may have continued for quite some time after the introduction of the Newstead type for two reasons. First, like the replacement of mail by segmented armour types, re-equipping legions with new armour was expensive, second armour which was still in a serviceable condition, remained useful regardless of age. The Newstead type of armour is a much simplified pattern in which the elaborate fittings of the older patterns (such as buckles and ties) have been discarded. The hinges have been replaced by simple rivets and the belt and buckle fastenings by hooks. The shoulder plates are riveted together and the girdle lames are larger than previous lames, although probably reduced to five or six pairs, the lower two pairs being replaced by a single pair of wide plates. The inner shoulder-guard plate in this type is a single strip instead of three plates hinged together, coming down much further at the front and back. This deep inflexible breast and upper back plates were laminated in the same way as the girdles and held together by internal leather straps.
The simplification of this type of armour indicates that earlier designs were probably over engineered and the more complex types were both labour and maintenance intensive and more prone to fall apart. This form of armour was used extensively for most of this period due to its successful form. In contrast to the earlier armours, the segmented plate armour was flexible, lighter and easier to maintain and repair. The design of this armour also adapted and evolved in response to the fighting techniques of a number of different enemies and the economic needs of Rome at this time. Armour has much to tell about the Roman Army, its method of waging war, and the economy of the first century. The change in military equipment illustrates a process whereby Roman forces borrowed the technology of other people whom they came into conflict.
These adaptations are illustrated by the armour forms taken from the Greeks, and the Celts. Innovation occurred using the available military and civilian technology to counter a threat posed by a particular enemy. Thus by the first century A.D. much of the soldiers’ equipment, including the armour, was derived from enemies of earlier periods.
The four types of armour identified in this paper had their own characteristics and variations. They all have benefits or drawbacks in terms of protection, mobility and cost.
There appears to be a trend toward the balance between these three factors which ultimately led to the introduction of segmented breastplate which in its simplest form was one of Rome’s greatest pieces of armour produced.
Bishop, M.C. and Coulston, J.C.N., Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to The Fall of Rome. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1993.
Peterson, D., ‘Legio XIIIIGMV: Roman Legionaries Recreated (2)’ Military Illustrated: Past ; Present No.47, 1992, pp.36-42.
Simkins, M., The Roman Army from Caesar to Traian. Hong Kong: Osprey Military Press, 1994.
Tacitus, C., The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. Michael Grant. London: Penguin Classics, 1989.
Warry, J., Warfare in the Classical World. London: Salamander Books Ltd, 1980.
Webster, G., The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D. London: Adams ; Charles Black, 1969.