The Roman legionary, unlike most of his opponents, could depend upon a set issue of uniform kit, including a stout metal helmet called a galea.
The design of the helmet evolved through time, the Romans were great improvers, and they were made for different ranks and to meet different threats.
While the Roman’s pioneered near-industrial processes, this equipment was made by hand, usually near where it was needed, and would have had many regional and personal idiosyncrasies. Early helmets were hammered into shape from large sheets of metal.
It’s important to remember that we do not have access to the designs of Roman military equipment. What we know is based on what we find, and what written accounts and illustrations have survived the nearly 2,000 years since the Empire fell. It is a partial record at best. Here are five Roman soldiers’ helmets:
1. The Montefortino helmet
If the Romans saw something that worked they had no hesitation in taking it for their own. This creative theft was one of their greatest strengths, and the Montefortino helmet is just one of many examples of military plagiarism.
The Celts wore the original Montefortino helmets, which are named after the Italian region where they were first found by modern archaeologists. It was in use between 300 BC and 100 AD, including during the Pyrrhic Wars and against Hannibal’s mighty Carthaginian armies.
It’s a simple design, a globe chopped in two, though some variants are more conical. The knob at the top of the helmet may, in some cases, have been the anchor for plumes or other decoration. The shelf protruding at one side of the helmet is not a peak but a neck guard. Few cheek or face guards survive, but holes for attaching them do, they may have been made of less durable material.
To the Celts who first used them, the helmet was a prized item to be decorated and individually styled. One way of identifying Roman examples is by their lack of visual appeal – they were mass produced from brass and designed to be cost-effective as well as effective.
You only have to look at pictures of American GIs during World War II, to see that this simple design was getting the fundamentals right.
2 . The Imperial helmet
After the Montefortino came the very similar Coolus helmet, which was replaced by the Imperial helmet from the 1st century BC.
It is visibly more sophisticated, and a whole series of subsequent galea until the 3rd century are classified by historians as subtypes of the Imperial.
The Imperial Gallic classification gives a clue to its origins in a design lifted from the Gauls who the Romans fought in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars of 58 – 50 BC.
An eyebrow design of embossed metal marks the front of the helmet, which does now have a peak. The neck guard is now sloping with a ridged section where it joins the main headpiece. Cheek guards no longer dangle on rings but are almost contiguous with the helmet and made of the same metal – often iron with brass decorations.
Where the Montefortino and Coolus were utilitarian, the makers of Imperial helmets made more decorative touches.
3. The ridged helmet
Learning as they expanded their territories, the Romans came up against a ferocious opponents in the Dacian Wars of Emperor Trajan at the turn of the 2nd century.
Dacia is a region of eastern Europe that at times included modern day Romania and Moldova, and parts of Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
Trajan’s Column, a richly-carved triumphal piece of architecture that still stands in Rome, is one of the most important sources we have on the Roman military.
The Dacians used a long, hooked sword called a falx that was capable of cutting through the Imperial helmet. Legionaries in the field took their own precautions by riveting iron bars across the tops of their helmets and they soon became standard issue.
4. The late Roman ridge helmet
The arrival of the Late Roman ridge helmet at the end of the 3rd century marked the end of the Imperial type.
Again, Rome’s enemies wore them first, this time the soldiers of the Sassanid Empire, a pre-Islamic Iranian empire.
These new helmets were made from several pieces of metal, usually either two or four, which were joined along a ridge. The two-piece helmets had smaller faceguards and weren’t rimmed by the large ring at the base that feature in four-piece helmets.
They are the first Roman helmets to feature a nose guard and they may have had an under-helm to which the face guards were attached. A neck guard, possibly of mail, was attached to the helmet with leather straps.
Most of the examples that have survived are spectacularly decorated, often with precious metals and with attachments in the ridge to allow for a crest to be fixed. They are believed to have been worn by both cavalry and infantry.
This type of helmet wasn’t only adopted by the Romans. Named the Spangenhelm – a German word – the ridged helmet came to some of the European tribes the Romans fought against by a different route. The spectacular Sutton Hoo helmet, found in an Anglo Saxon ship burial of the early 7th century, is of this type.
5. The Praetorian helmet
Our previous helmets were worn by the rank and file, but this variation illustrates the role of the helmet in delineating ranks within the Roman army.
The Praetorian Guard were the bodyguards of generals (praetor means general) and then emperors. The choosing of the best troops as bodyguards, initially for their campaign tent, was an important safeguard for Roman generals, who could face the swords of their countrymen as well as barbarian foes.
From 23 AD they were, in theory, at the command of the Emperor, and were an important player in political disputes, based as they were just outside the city of Rome. They became so troublesome that they were relieved of their special status in 284 AD and in 312 AD their Roman fortress was demolished by Constantine the Great.
The Arch of Claudius, built in 51 AD to celebrate the invasion of Britain, shows the guard wearing distinctive helmets with large (almost certainly horsehair) crests.
This may have been artistic invention, but it is believed that high status soldiers could and did supply their own kit and decorate it. Centurions may have had front-to-back crests on their helmets for example.