Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Roman armor adapted from conquered peoples

I saw an interesting program last night entitled "What the Ancients Knew" featuring contributions by the Romans. It was pretty good but some comments were made that I wondered about. For example, it said that the Romans' lorica segmentata was adapted from a Celtic armor design. I've never heard that before.

This excerpt from a webpage on Roman armor prepared by Legio XXIV doesn't acknowledge a Celtic origin either:

"This classic armor of the Roman Army, came into use during the early First Century AD. Its origin is unknown. To the average person, this style of cuirass denotes the Roman Legionary Soldier. The term applied by the Romans to this armor is now lost to us; however, "Lorica" is Latin for armor and "Segmentata" is a medieval or modern term adopted to describe the system of segments or plates assembled with leather straps and buckles or bronze or iron hooks and eyes along with internal leather straps, hence the current name of Lorica Segmentata. The term "Laminata" is now coming into use in leu of "Segmentata" to describe this type of body armor. The plates were not laminated in the sense that there were two layers of metal laminated together. "Lamina" was the latin term for metal and thus the separate segments were termed as "Lames". The terms "Lamina" and "Lames" were also applied to "scale" or "Squamata" armor as well.

The first types of this armor were termed "Corbridge A or B", based on several partial examples found as a part of the so-called Corbridge Hoard, near Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, England. The Type "A" was connected together by internal and external leather straps and bronze buckles. The Type "B" still utilized internal leather straps to connect the individual plates, but substituted bronze or iron hooks and eyes, in instead of external straps and buckles, to secure the shoulder units to the torso girdle sections."


This article by the Legio IX Hispana acknowledges the Celts as designers of Lorica Hamata (chain mail) but does not indicate that they were the originators of the Lorica Segmentata:

"Lorica Hamata is Latin for a type of armor made up of interlinked rings, also known as mail (or, inaccurately as chainmail). Lorica Hamata was a standard armor of the Roman Military from the early Republic until the fall of the Empire. It evolved over this period of time, changing with the times and as the situation demanded. The scope covered here is the Lorica Hamata from the late Republic to the height of the Empire (roughly late 1st Century BCE to the 2nd Century CE)

The true origins of mail are unknown, and it seems unlikely they will ever be known. It is estimated that it was developed by the Celtic Gauls around 300 BCE. It took an inventive people with a superb mastery of metal working to develop such a creation, and the Celts were known as the great ironworkers of the ancient world. Even though the Celtic distaste for armor is known, they are credited with developing mail into its most successful form. "


The program also stated that the helmet was adapted from an Etruscan helmet. I don't think I've ever heard that before either. This article mentions that the crest featured on helmets from the 4th century BCE to the 1st century C.E. can be seen on early Greco-Etruscan pottery:

"The earliest form of helmets appear to have only had centrally mounted plumes but in the early Imperial period late 1st BC to early 2nd century AD fittings have been found indicating that removable crest boxes might have been used. The evidence for crest boxes are mainly ?U? shaped crest holders which could be attached to fixing points in the centre of the crown and at the back of helmets. The lack of other non-metal remains indicates that crest boxes may have mainly been made out of wood so have rotted away over time. There also appear normally to have been either plume or possibly feather holders positioned on either side of the helmets. If feathers were used then these might have been goose feathers as sacred to Juno.
The purposes of these plumes or crests are thought to have been either for decoration, unit identification or as an indication of rank. Evidence from sculpture and monuments indicate that by the 2nd Century AD the crests were not used during combat and are mainly depicted only in use for parades or festivals. Vegetus is quoted as stating that centurions had a different form of crest and some sculptures of centurions show them with crests mounted transversely across their helmets, while representations of legionaries normally have the crest running from the brows towards the nape of the neck.

Montefortino Helmets

The earliest forms of helmets were called ?Montefortino?, after the first major find site and were the type of helmets that the early Republican consular armies would have used. These ranged from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD. These helmets were made from brass and domed in shape, with a small extension at the back as a neck guard. They normally have a plug-in plume holder on the crown of the helmet, which was conical in shape and in the earliest forms with a scalloped decoration on the plume holder."

It goes on to explain other helmet developments:

Coolus Helmets

The second known group of helmets, was the ?Coolus? variety, which covered the period 3rd century BC to at least 79AD. These were based on a Gallic form of helmet made in the Coolus district of Marne. In form they were a simple hemispherical bowl made out of bronze with a reinforcing peak running horizontally across the brow and with a larger extension at the back as a neck guard. Most have a simple spike as a plug-in plume or crest holder.

Imperial-Gallic Helmets

The third group of helmets was the ?Imperial-Gallic?, based on the type of helmet used by the Gaul?s. These were more decorated than earlier varieties with embossed ?eyebrows?, had a re-enforced peak and a ridged extension at the back as a neck-guard. These were initially probably made by Gallic smiths so retained the original influence in construction and design and stretched in use from the late 1st century BC through to the early 2nd century AD. These helmets were mainly made of iron with recesses for the ears and brass decoration including small circular bosses on the helmet and the cheek pieces. The crest holder consisted of a right-angled foot that slid into a tube on the crown of the helmet, although some versions found also have additional decorative plume holders at the ends of the peak.

Imperial-Italic Helmets

The final major group, were the ?Imperial-Italic?, which were in shape similar to the Imperial-Gallic but because of their simplicity of construction technique and lack of decoration Russell Robinson placed them as being made by Italian smiths and probably based on the Greco-Etruscan and Italian helmets of the Republican period. They were in use from the late 1st BC to early 3rd century AD. Several types used twist on crests that were held in a ?T? shaped holder on the crown. The earliest known versions of these helmets have no archaeological provenance but are claimed to have been found in Herculanium, so may have been used by the Urban Cohorts or the Praetorians."

The program attributed the shield to the Samnites. (The shield depicted on the program was the oval type and did resemble the shield shown used by Samnite gladiators.) and pointed out that the pilum was uniquely Roman. However, this article attributes the oval shield to the Gauls and the pilum to the Etruscans:

Little is known about the armament of these early Roman horsemen, but a wall painting found at Paestum seems to indicate that they were armed with lances, round shields, a bronze cuirass or breastplate, and a helmet (Warry, 108). Though this image is of a Samnite, it is probable that Roman horsemen were similar because of the trading of military ideas between warring tribes and nations. The first class could afford what seems to have amounted to a Greek panoply. These units fought in the traditional phalanx formation used since the end of Dark Age Greece. These units were armed with a Greek hoplon or round shield, helmet, Greek sword, greaves or leg protection, a cuirass and a long pike that was used in the defensive manner of the phalanx. The second class was armed with helmet, greaves, and a scutum or Italian shield. The third was armed with helmet shield and spear. The last two classes were apparently skirmishers whose job was to tie up the more cumbersome enemy units. The fifth class were armed only with shields and spears, while the sixth went into battle with little more that a javelin or sling (Hackett, 136).

This army, which was effective during the sixth century BC when Rome was still fighting to break Etruscan power to the north, had difficulty fighting the many hill tribes to the east who used javelins and shields. The javelin throwers could easily outrun and outflank the cumbersome phalanx (Hackett, 137). The phalanx was already being replaced when in 390 BC, Rome suffered one of its worst defeats by the Gauls or Celts at the battle of Allia. The Romans, with all of their war experience, did not know how to react against this fierce enemy. The Roman army at that time was used to phalanx and javelin battle, where the attack often came from in front. The Gauls surprised the Romans because of their outlandish dress and battle frenzy, but the defeat of the Romans most likely occurred because the Gauls were armed with long slashing swords unknown to the Romans (Hackett, 138). The round hoplite shield proved inadequate against these attacks from the side and from above. Having no way of properly defend themselves, The Roman army was decimated and the city of Rome was sacked. Luckily for Rome, the Capitol remained untouched because of its formidable fortifications and according to the ancient historian Polybius, after several months the Gauls accepted tribute and left the city (Lewis, 79). This defeat marked the creation of new tactics and especially weapons and armor.

"The Romans began to realize the ineffectiveness of the traditional round hoplon. It was soon replaced almost entirely by the scutum. This shield was oval in shape with a metal rim and central iron boss held on by rivets that also served as a handgrip. The wood used was similar to plywood, as it was layered (Warry, 135). It was lighter and more maneuverable than the bronze hoplon and its similarity to the Gallic shield made it more effective against the three foot long slashing swords carried by the Celts. The Greek short sword that had been used was replaced by the gladius Hispiniensis (Hackett, 154), a double-edged sword with a blade length of approximately twenty inches with an eight inch handle (www.museumreplicas.com). It was a more effective weapon because of its use with the throwing spear or pilum.

The use of the pilum was instrumental in Roman infantry warfare. This weapon is thought to be of Etruscan origin. It proved highly effective against enemy shields."

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