The Early Evolution of Roman Legionary Armour | History Hit

The Early Evolution of Roman Legionary Armour

Simon Elliott

16 Aug 2023
Detail from the Ahenobarbus relief showing two Roman foot-soldiers from the late Republic, c. 122 BC.
Image Credit: Public Domain

The Roman legionary of the Principate is often thought of as the elite fighting soldier of the ancient world. Carrying his lead-weighted javelins and vicious stabbing sword, his prowess on the classical battlefield was second to none. However, it is his armour that has provided us with the most enduring image of the warrior, with gallic helmet, banded iron armour and rectangular body shield.

The story of how this panoply came to be is centuries long and reflects both the opponents that the legionary fought, and the great Roman ability to assimilate the ideas and technology of others. This article covers the early evolution of Roman armour, between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC.

The reforms of Servius Tullius

The earliest Roman military system dates to the reforms of Servius Tullius, the second Etrusco-Roman king who reigned from 579 BC to 535 BC. The state he ruled was dominated by the Etruscan culture to the north which, by the early 7th century BC, had spread its influence to the settlements above the eastern bank of the Tiber, including Rome.

Through their seafaring skills the Etruscans had earlier come into contact with the Greek colonies in southern Italy and eastern Sicily, and from this adopted the Greek hoplite phalanx as the principle fighting formation for their better-armed troops. Thus when Tullius carried out his reforms of the Etrusco-Roman army, with its wealth-based citizen-levy featuring four classes of line-of-battle troops, the elite First Class were equipped and fought as traditional hoplites.

Depiction of hoplites confronting a Persian horseman.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Their protective equipment featured Italicised-variants of the popular hoplite helmets of their day, for body armour either a bronze bell cuirass or perhaps the Etruscan round cuirass, and the bronze-faced heavy wooden aspis body shield. Rome became a Republic with the overthrow of Tarquin the Proud in 509 BC, though still maintained the Tullian military system with its core of hoplites.

This continued until the advent of the next reformer of the Roman military system, Marcus Furius Camillus.

The reforms of Camillus

In 401 BC Camillus was appointed consular tribune and given command over the military to bring about the end of the long siege of the rival Etrurian city of Veii, which he successfully did in 396 BC. However his reforms were actually prompted by the Latin defeat by the Senones Gauls at the Battle of Allia in 390 BC, and the subsequent traumatic sack of Rome.

His response was to abandon the phalanx and all other classes of Tullian line-of-battle troops. They were replaced for the first time by the manipular legion.

The manipular legion

Initially these were two in number, each commanded by a consul with six tribuni militum acting as subordinatesThe early manipular legion numbered 3,000 infantry each, though this quickly increased with time, ultimately to over 6,000. Within this legion there were three classes of line-of-battle troops, all termed for the first time legionaries. Based on experience and age rather than the equipment they could afford, these were:

  • triarii, veterans wearing helmets and body armour, carrying the scutum shield (see below), hasta thrusting spear and sword. These replaced, in part, the old Tullian First Class hoplites.
  • principes, older warriors also in helmet and body armour, carrying the scutum, pila heavy throwing javelin and sword. The pila (of Spanish origin) were used to deliver a devastating volley immediately prior to impact with the opposing battle line. These also replaced, in part, the old Tullian First Class hoplites.
  • hastati, ‘the flower of young men’, with helmet and lesser body armour, carrying the scutum, pila heavy throwing javelin and sword. These replaced the old Tullian Second class.

It is unclear how quickly the pilum replaced the spear of the old First and Second classes for the principes and hastati, though it was the latter who converted first.

Camillian armour

Legionary helmets were worn by all line-of-battle troops no matter their status in the Camillan manipular system. Made from bronze, they fitted the cranium and provided good overall protection. Designs called Etrusco-Corinthian, Attic and Montefortino were the most common, especially later in this phase of legionary evolution. It was usual for such helmets to feature three purple or black feathers standing up to 50cm in height.

For body armour all legionaries wore a square bronze 223mm pectoral covering the heart and upper chest. This was held in place with leather straps. Older Italic single and triple disc shaped pectorals were also still in use at this time. Those who could afford it, usually triarii and principes, replaced the primitive pectorals with lorica hamata chain mail shirts as time went on. Such armour, while offering greatly improved protection, was very heavy at around 15kg.

Historical reenactor in Roman centurion costume

Image Credit: User Lviatour on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

This covered the torso from the shoulder to the hips, was of Gallic origin (showing the Romans assimilating superior enemy military technology) and was made from interlinked iron rings 1mm thick and up to 9mm in external diameter. Up to 20,000 were needed for each shirt, making its manufacture very labour intensive and expensive.

If the legionary could afford it this defensive panoply was completed with an iron or bronze greave on the leading left lower leg – both legs for the very well off.

The Camillan scutum shield was a large rectangular curved body shield up to 120cm in length and 75cm in width, possibly of Samnite origin. Made from planed wooden strips laminated together in three layers, it was very sturdy. An umbones iron boss was attached to the centre where the shield was slightly thicker. It was completed with a calf-skin and felt facing.

The scutum weighed up to 10kg and was held by a horizontal grip using a straightened arm. Crucially, rather than just being used for protection, it was also used as an offensive weapon in its own right, for example being smashed into an opponent to push them over.

Gallic influence

A key factor here in the switch from Tullian First Class phalanx to the manipular legionary (and the clearly associated change in the defensive equipment, particularly the shield) was the height of the Gallic warriors faced at Allia and later by the legions of Rome, and their fighting technique.

Taller than their Latin counterparts, they fought with long iron swords using a downward slashing technique. This rendered the hoplite’s aspis, designed to defend the user and his neighbours from frontal attack, less practical. Another change at this time was in formation density. The triarii, principes, and hastati all formed up in a looser formation than the phalanx. This allowed free use of the sword and scutum, though the triarii could be deployed in closer formation if a hedge of spears was required.

Polybian reforms

After Rome’s conflict with Pyrrhus in the early 3rd century BC, the Camillan manipular legion further evolved into one dubbed the Polybian system. This again included the triarii, principes, and hastati, with the major change being the replacement of the leves skirmishers who supported the legionaries with velites who were better equipped for the role.

The fourth and fifth classes of the Camillan system, called rorarii and accensi whose role supporting the legionaries is unclear, also disappear from this point. In terms of the defensive panoply the major change here would have been the increasing use of lorica hamata chain mail shirts, particularly by the triarii and principes.

Simon Elliott