The use of shields in battle originates in pre-history and is present in the earliest known human civilisations. A logical evolution in armed combat, shields were used to block attacks from hand-held weapons like swords as well as projectile weapons such as arrows. Early shields were typically constructed of wood and animal hide and later reinforced with metal.
Shields of Ancient Rome
Roman soldiers or legionaires were well protected by leather and iron armour, helmets and shields, called scuta. The shapes and styles of Roman shields differed according to use and timeframe. Many shields were based on Greek aspis or hoplon, which were round and deeply concave like a dish.
Aspides were wooden and sometimes plated with bronze. Some Roman shields were strengthened by plating their edges with a copper alloy, though this was eventually abandoned in favour of using stitched rawhide, which bound the shields more effectively.
Roman shields also featured a boss or umbo, a thick, round, wooden or metal protrusion that deflected blows and served as a place to mount the grip. Here are three kinds of Roman shields.
1. Legionaire scutum
The most famous of the Roman shields, great scuta were large and either rectangular or oval. Early oval scuta evolved into the rectangular, semi-cylindrical versions, which were used by the foot soldiers of the early Empire to great effect. Their concave nature offered substantial protection, but made the use of weapons somewhat difficult as it restricted arm movement.
The use of rectangular scuta ended by the 3rd century AD, but scuta in general survived into the Byzantine Empire.
A battle formation that made excellent use of the great scuta was the testudo or tortoise formation, in which soldiers would gather close and align their shields both in front and on top. This protected the group from frontal attacks and projectiles launched from above.
For reasons of movement and balance, soldiers on horseback used smaller round shields, called parma. A typical Parma measured a maximum of 36 inches across and had a strong iron frame, though these were eventually abandoned for lighter oval shields of wood and leather.
During the early Republican period, foot soldiers also used a kind of parma, but this was replaced by the longer scuta, which offered more protection.
The clipeus was the Roman version of the Greek aspis. Although the clipeus was used alongside the rectangular legionaire or great scutum, after the 3rd century the oval or round clipeus became the standard shield of the Roman soldier.
Based on examples discovered at archaeological sites, the clipeus was constructed of vertical glued planks, covered with painted leather and bound on the edges with stitched rawhide.
A note on gladiator shields
The entertainment aspect of gladiatorial fighting leant itself to variety. Contestants were therefore outfitted with different types of shields, whether of Greek or Roman origin or from a foreign conquered land. It wasn’t unusual to see a hexagonal Germanic shield in the gladiators’ ring, while an elaborately decorated scutum, parma or clipeus served to heighten the spectacle.