Armor Of Ancient Rome Essay

This essay has a total of 3733 words and 14 pages.


Armor Of Ancient Rome





Armor of Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome expended a great deal of economic resources and effort upon conquest and
expansion through military means. The role of armor was fundamental in this expansion as it
played a significant role in the success of the Roman armies on the battlefield. There were three
common requirements for armor construction throughout its history: The first was that armor
had to be flexible enough to allow the wearer freedom of movement; second, it also had to be
lightweight enough to be worn without tiring the wearer while providing protection against
opponents' weapons; and third, armor had to be cost effective. These three aspects influenced
the evolution of Roman cuirass (lorica) design throughout Rome’s history. The central concept
in the study of Roman armor is that it was always a compromise between mobility, protection,
and cost.
There were at least four cuirass types in use during the first century A.D. These were the
muscle, scale, mail, and segmented cuirasses with mail and segmented cuirasses being the most
predominant. The study of these armor types relies upon three main sources of evidence:
iconographic (e.g., sculpture, tombstones, monuments); archaeological; and literary sources.
The evolution of Roman lorica was driven by the needs and circumstances of the Roman
Army. Armies of the 1st century A.D. were firmly established within the Empire and control fell
solely under the auspices of the Emperor. Increasingly the main strength of the Roman army, up
to thirty legions, was garrisoned on the frontiers. Only a token military force, the Praetorian
Guard, remained in Rome. The military situation in this period was seldom dormant. In the 1st
century the invasion of Britain (A.D.43) necessitated the reorganization of legions and
auxiliaries over much of north west Europe. Further reorganization occurred after the civil war
of A.D.69, when the victorious Flavian dynasty dispersed disloyal units. As the Empire's
expansion slowed, permanent borders were established. Auxiliaries patrolled the borders and
legionnaires were stationed within the frontiers to act as a strategic reserve and intimidate
potentially rebellious provinces.
The army can be divided into two distinct parts: the legion and the auxiliary ( auxilia), with a
marked social division existing between the two. Only Roman citizens could become
legionnaires, while auxilia were composed of non citizens recruited from Rome's client states
and tribes. These legions were supported by the non citizen auxilia consisting of infantry cohorts
and cavalry (alae). A legion consisted of around 5,000 men which were mostly heavy foot
soldiers. However, it is only possible to attempt a rough estimate of the men who constituted a
legion. It has been estimated that the total number of Roman troops, including legions and
auxilia, numbered more than 300,000 during the first century A.D. It has also been assumed
that the legionary and auxiliary troops were equipped differently. This notion is based on
evidence from a single source, Trajan's column, which shows clear distinctions between
legionary and auxiliary equipment.
The early view put forward by historians such as Webster was that the equipment issued to
legionnaires was remarkably uniform throughout the empire. However, the archaeological
evidence does not support this theory, showing that a wide range of types and ages of equipment
was in use at any one time. Peterson argues that uniformity in the Roman army may have only
extended to soldiers having their own serviceable body armor, helmet, weapons and shield
displaying a common unit emblem. Bishop and Coulston suggest that in this period soldiers
had to purchase their own equipment. The system encouraged the individual to be more
respectful of their equipment by introducing a sense of personal responsibility. Most of this
equipment may have been purchased from army stock, but soldiers may have been free to buy
more elaborate or expensive items from private craftsmen. As this was probably beyond the
economic means of most soldiers, elaborate cuirasses have been attributed only to soldiers of
centurion rank or higher. Bishop further proposes that military equipment could be sold back to
the legions upon retirement or death of the owner, and therefore could be passed down to a
number of different owners. He cites evidence of equipment which has been found with several
owner inscriptions. The cost of this equipment would probably have forced recycling, and in
conjunction with the repair of damaged equipment this may have meant that the life of an object
could be expected to last for many years. These factors also suggest that the actual production of
new loricae at any one time may have been fairly low.
One of the most widely recognized of these Roman lorica was the so called 'muscle' cuirass,
probably Hellenistic in origin. This cuirass was molded on the contours of the muscles of the
male chest which were reproduced in an idealized manner. This type of cuirass was probably
constructed from iron or bronze, consisting of a high-waisted or hip length breastplate. Shoulder
straps hinged to the edges of the back plate, with their forward extremities tied down to rings on
the breast. These plates had side fastenings with perhaps two hinges or a pair of rings joined by
ties providing for the soldier's left and right flanks. None of these metallic muscled cuirasses of
the Roman period have survived in the archaeological record. However, Etruscan metal muscle
cuirasses dating from 5th to the 3rd Century B.C. have been found. Muscle cuirasses have also
been believed to have been made of leather. However, a molded leather cuirass would have to be
very thick and rigid to have any defensive qualities. Robinson suggests that this cuirass type was
probably worn almost exclusively by emperors and top-ranking military leaders as a symbol of
Roman might and sovereignty.
Another type of cuirass was the lorica squamata, also known as scaled or jezeraint armor.
Scale armor is perhaps the oldest type of metal body armor. Peterson proposed that its origins
date to at least the 2nd millennium B.C., having a long history of use in Greece and the East.
Despite its early origins it was used throughout the entire period of Roman dominance. Scale
armor was usually depicted with short sleeves, and the lower edges reaching the upper thighs.
Scale armor was made from both iron and bronze. The manufacture of scale armor involved
small sections of metal sheeting of varying sizes being attached by wires or riveted to their
neighbors and sewn onto a suitably flexible foundation of hide or strong cloth. Early scale armor
was commonly joined by small twisted links of bronze wiring, positioned in horizontal rows,
overlapping upwards and layered like scales of a fish or in the manner of roof tiles. Evidence of
parts of a bronze lorica squamata was found at the site of Corstopitum (Corbridge) in
Northumberland England. These scales were very small, and due to the expense incurred in
manufacturing such fine armor, Simkins proposes that the man, probably an officer, no doubt
would have purchased this armor himself. A similar group of 346 scales which was found in
the fort of Newstead (A.D. 98-100), of yellow bronze (perhaps a result of oxidization), are larger
measuring 2.9 cm by 1.2 cm. Generally, the defensive qualities of scale are inferior to mail
armor, being neither as strong nor as flexible. It was nevertheless popular throughout the Roman
period, possibly because it appears that it may have been simpler to manufacture and repair than
other loricae (although presumably more difficult to maintain because of its intricate
construction). Experimental archaeology conducted by Massey has tested reconstructions of
known arrowheads against various body defenses used in Roman times. At a range of 7 meters,
Massey argues that arrowheads seemed to penetrate this armor type one out of every two
occasions. He suggests that this may occur due to the shape of the scales and the way in which
the scales have been assembled. Presumably the changing conditions of the test would also
affect the frequency of penetration. Further, it is concluded that tests indicated that when scale
armor had been strengthened by wiring in a series of horizontal rows, none of the known
contemporary arrow types could penetrate it, although the scales were severely deformed. A
modern parallel would be modern body armor (kevlar), which will stop some bullets however,
the impact may nonetheless cause severe trauma such as internal hemorrhaging.
Archaeological finds appear to indicate that this type of armor was used much more widely
than the surviving sculptures suggest, although only fragments of the armor survive. Despite
this evidence the use of lorica squamatae does not appear to have been as extensive as mail.
Peterson suggests that the sculptured record indicates that lorica squamata was largely the
exclusive equipment of centurions and high-ranking officers between the 1st and 2nd centuries
A.D..
Mail was also known as lorica hamata by the Romans. It is generally accepted that the
Romans acquired their knowledge of mail-making from the Celts, who were the original
fabricators of this form of armor. Mail consists of metal rings, each one linked through four
others, two in the row above it and two below. The fine mail of the 1st century could be made
from bronze or iron rings measuring as little as 3mm in diameter. Only fragments of mail exist
in the archaeological record but the sculptured record indicates that there were many variations
of lorica hamata. The method of construction of mail rings in Roman times is similar to that of
later periods. Warry says that mail could be made from rings of two sorts: solid rings or opened,
linked rings which could be either butted or riveted shut. Robinson proposes that the oldest and
quickest method of construction is where every alternate row of rings is punched out of sheet
metal and the rows connecting them are made from wire, with their ends flattened, overlapped,
punched and riveted. However, there is little evidence of punched rings in the archaeological
record. The Romans appear to have almost always riveted the ends of the rings together, the
result being that the mail was much stronger than the butted variety, made by simply butting the
wire ends together and which could be torn open quite readily. These rings could vary in size
from an outside diameter ranging between 3mm and 9mm, the latter being found in post 1st
century A.D. sites.
There were advantages and disadvantages in using mail armor. The rings provided excellent
defense against slashing cuts and was also effective against thrusts, while remaining very
flexible. As there were only interlinking rings to give it form the armor suffered little from wear
and could be repaired even when badly damaged. Mail armor could be easily recycled and
passed down from the legion to the auxiliary, as it would still remain functional as armor
regardless of its age or even if superseded by another type. This may be indicated by the
sculptured record from later periods such as Trajan's column, which shows that earlier cuirass
types were in use with the western legions during the Dacian campaigns.
A disadvantage of mail over other cuirasses is that its manufacture is extremely labor
intensive, perhaps taking as much as 180 hours to make a complete mail hauberk of the simplest
type worn by auxiliaries from 1/4 inch stamped and butted wire rings. Clearly armor of this type
must have been a costly exercise to manufacture. While it afforded reasonable freedom of
movement, it was also very heavy, weighing perhaps as much as 15pounds . The weight may
have been countered by the use of a cingulum militare (a military belt), which could be drawn
tightly about the waist, thereby distributing part of the weight onto the hips and relieving the
shoulders of part of their burden. Moreover, tests using contemporary arrow types by Massey
suggests that most arrowhead types consistently penetrated the mail to a depth that would prove
lethal to the wearer. However, bunching of the mail at suspension points prevented penetration
of the mail beyond a depth of 3-5 cm. "This [implies] that the doubling of mail shoulder
defenses known to be practiced by both Romans and Celts may have saved the life of their
owners.” These observations are consistent with Plutarch's writings of the life of Marcus
Licinius Crassus who in 53 B.C. engaged the Parthians with his army in the deserts of
Mesopotamia at the Battle of Carrhae. Plutarch was not exaggerating when he spoke of arrows:

...which could pierce armor and pass through every kind of [defensive] covering, hard or
soft alike . . . or of . . . hands [pinned] to their shields, and their feet nailed through into the
ground, so that they [were capable] neither fly nor fight.
Continues for 7 more pages >>




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