Last Updated on December 18, 2021 by Vladimir Vulic
The equipment to the legionaries was remarkably uniform throughout the empire and it is possible that there were large centres in Gaul and North Italy for the mass manufacture of helmets, armour and weapons as well as the kettles and mess tins, etc.
One can detect changes in the style at different periods and there seems to have been a tendency in the first two centuries gradually to simply and reduce any over elaboration. In the middle of the first century for example the buckles, belt plates and apron terminals were not only silvered and occasionally even gilded, but also decorated with black inlays. By the end of the first century this practice had ceased.
The soldiers wore linen undergarments next to the skin and over it a short-sleeved woolen tunic which came down to the knees.
Although the Romans had originally considered the wearing of trousers (bracae) a foreign and effeminate habit, legionaries in cold climates were allowed to wear trousers made of of wool or leather which were skin tight and reached just below the knee.
On their feet they wore the elaborate military boot. In fact they were heavy sandals with several thicknesses of sole studded with hollow-headed hobnails. The leather thongs were continued half way op the shin and tied there, and in cold weather could be stuffed with wool or fur.
The type of body armour varied through the times. Under Caesar and in the early first century, legionaries wore chain mail, but by Claudius had a complex suit of six or seven horizontal overlapping strips attached on the inside by leather strips to allow freedom of movement, the lorica segmentata. (The expression ‘lorica segmentata’ is an expression created by scholars to describe the armour, rather than being the term necessarily used by the Romans themselves.)
The shoulders were covered with sets of curved strips and there were also pairs of front and back plates. the armour could be taken apart, or quickly put on as a complete unit and laced up at the front.
On the column of Marcus Aurelius another variation of lorica segmentata is visible, being without any chest and back plate, the strips far more reaching all the way up to the neck. Also on Marcus Aurelius’ column appear soldier in scale armour, which appeared to thereafter slowly emerge as the new form of legionary protection.
Although all three types of armour appear still to have been used during the reign of Constantine the Great.
It appears that the first to wear scale armour were the imperial guard, the praetorians. The legionaries followed suit at a later date.
Around the neck the legionary wore a scarf to protect the metal plates from chafing the skin. The legionary had a wide belt, studded with decorated metal plates, which carried dagger to one side and an apron at the front. The apron consisted of a number of leather thongs to which were riveted metal plates, and weighted with bronze terminals. It swung between the legs on the march and was most likely merely decorative though some believe it might also have given at least some limited protection to the lower stomach and the genitals.
For the protection of the head there was a carefully designed bronze helmet, which had inside an iron skull cap. At the back a projecting piece shielded the neck and a smaller ridge fastened at the front face protection to the face. At the sides were large cheek pieces hinged at the top.
The men’s’ legs were bare, protection being sacrificed for mobility. Each man carried a large shield, the scutum, which was curved to fit the body. They were made from a kind of plywood, thin sheets of wood, glued together so that the grain of each piece was at right angles to its neighbour. The whole was bound around the edges with wrought iron or bronze and the centre was hollowed out on the inside for the for the hand grip and protected by a metal boss. On the outside the surface was covered in leather, on which was fastened gilded or silvered decoration, probably in bronze. The decorations on legionaries’ shields represented Jupiter’s thunderbolts.
Each cohort had its shields coloured differently to aid recognition in the confusion of battle. the shields also carried the name of the soldier and that of his centurion. On the march the shield was hung by a strap over the left shoulder.
For taking the offensive the legionaries possessed two kinds of weapons.
The pilum, or javelin, was primarily a disarming weapon.
Julius Caesar clearly described its function: “The Gauls were much hampered in action because a single spear often pierced more than one of their overlapping shields and pinned them together, and, as the iron bent, they could not pull it out. With their left arms thus encumbered it was impossible for them to fight properly, and many, after repeated attempts to pull their shields free, preferred to drop the shields altogether and fight unprotected.”
The pilum of imperial times was seven feet long. The top three feet were of iron with a hardened point.
It is probable that more sturdy types of spear or pike were available for defence against cavalry.
The legionary sword, the gladius, was a double-bladed weapon two feet long and two inches wide, often with a corrugated bone grip. Its primary use was for thrusting at short range. It was carried high on the right hand side so as to be clear of the legs and the shield arm.
On the left hand side, attached to the belt, was a dagger, the pugio.
Apart from his weapons each man, carried a saw, a wicker basket for shifting earth, a piece of rope or leather, a sickle and a pickaxe.
The pickaxe was carried on the belt, its sharp edge in a bronze sheath, but the other items were carried on a forked pole, the pila muralia, which was invented by Marius, and the marching soldier would carry across his shoulder.
In the later years of the empire some of this burden was occasionally born by a wagon train accompanying the troops.
The heaviest and most bulky piece of equipment was the leather tent papilio. This was carried by mule, together with a pair of millstones for grinding the corn ration.
The Centurion’s and Staff Officers’ Equipment
This officer was distinguished from the men by his uniform. He wore a corselet of leather, mail or scales with metal shoulder pieces and a beautifully ornamented belt. Below his corselet was a double-pleated kilt-like garment and on his shins he ware thin metal greaves. Unlike the legionary he carried his sword in the orthodox position on the left swinging from a baldric From his left shoulder a cloak, made of fine material, hung in elegant folds. In his right hand he carried his emblem of office the twisted vine stick vitis.
Generally a centurion would be a very ornate and decorated figure, establishing his higher rank from that of the ordinary men.
The legate and his staff officers were distinguished by their fine cloaks, dyed according to rank. They had their own, individual armour and uniform which was suited to their personal tastes.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.