Dress and the army of conquest

The great Roman writer Vergil begins his epic tale, the Aeneid, with the words Arma virumque cano, ‘I sing of arms and the man’.

Arms, armour, men and identity were themes interwoven in Roman literature and, it appears, on Roman battlefields too. The sophistication of Rome’s military meant that her soldiers took the field clad in extensive armour and brandishing the best weapons available. The Romans had long learnt to abandon any cultural chauvinism in their search for the best equipment and would quickly adopt and adapt any weapons they found in the hands of their enemies if it was superior to their own.

Yet for all the pragmatism that necessarily accompanied military innovation, there was still a sense under the early empire that certain soldierly identities should be distinguished by the equipment associated with them. The world class collections of the Great North Museum (GNM) in Newcastle are an excellent place to explore this theme. Containing as they do artefacts from every major site on Hadrian’s Wall, the GNM collections include many elements of arms and armour. In this video we consider some of the evidence for legionary and auxiliary equipment used in the first and second centuries AD. Though it would be wrong to imagine that Roman soldiers followed some modern form of dress regulations, leading to a notional uniformity of appearance, it is clear that there were nevertheless certain conventions at this time.

Legionary soldiers, the citizen soldiers, appear more likely to wear plate armour (lorica segmentata) and to carry a curved shield (scutum), a short sword (gladius) and a weighted javelin (pilum). Conversely, auxiliary soldiers were more likely to wear mail shirts (lorica hamata), carry a flat shield (clipeus), longer sword (spatha) and a spear (hasta). A dagger (pugio) was carried by both legionaries and auxiliaries. All wore helmets, but different types appear to have predominated in different types of units. As we will see, these conventions break down over time, and by the third century, they are very hard to see, perhaps partly because by this time the distinction between citizens and non-citizens has become less important in Roman society.

To learn more about Roman arms and amour, see Bishop, M. C. and Coulston, J. C. N., 2005 Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, Oxbow: Oxford. Haynes, I. P., 2013 Blood of the Provinces: the Roman auxilia and the making of provincial society from Augustus to Severans, OUP: Oxford, examines the relationship between arms, armour and identity.

© Newcastle University

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