? 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,
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
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.
The armor in question was probably mail as it was used extensively by legionnaires during the
late Republic until the introduction of the lorica segmentata in Claudian times. Massey’s testing
also showed that arrow shafts were occasionally locked into place by the deformed mail rings
through which these had passed, which would have made them difficult to remove and the
wounds considerably more difficult to treat. Mail also would not absorb the impact of a blow,
unless extremely well padded by a very thick doublet, and the mail could also be driven into the
flesh of the wearer. It is, perhaps, because of these disadvantages that after the introduction of
segmental armor, mail was probably largely confined to the auxiliary troops.
The form of cuirass for which the 1st century is best known is the lorica segmentata. The
name was not invented by the Romans but came into use during the Renaissance. It was the first
type of articulated plate armor cuirass, the origins of which are unclear. The segmental cuirass
may have found its way into the Roman army from the gladiatorial arena. The first time the
Roman legionnaires came into contact with this armor may have been during the revolt of Florus
and Sacrovir in 21 A.D. This revolt consisted of heavily armored gladiators, called crupellarii,
fighting against legionnaires. Tacitus described how armored gladiators were killed by the
legionnaires hacking through their segmented armor with pickaxes. It is highly probable that
this form of armor was being issued as standard legionary equipment by the time the Emperor
Claudius’ troops invaded Britain in A.D.43.
The lorica segmentata was constructed of collar and shoulder units which consisted of 24
plates (lames) and 16 girdle plates. The latter were half semicircular iron lames, consisting of
strips of iron sheet, and were positioned horizontally, riveted onto leather straps. The lames were
laced at the center of the breast and back in such a way as to encircle the trunk completely while
still allowing the body considerable freedom of movement. The articulation of the bands was
kept in place by a complicated system of straps and buckles. Fastened on the inside by leather
straps and fastened at the front and back with laces, buckles and straps. These fittings, were
usually made of a thin brass sheet. The defense was completed with two half-collars (shoulder
guards) of articulated lames. Each collar consisted of a small breastplate (3.3 cm by 8.6 cm wide
at the lower end) which was fastened to other lames that formed a neck guard. Both of the
shoulder-guards consisted of five plates. The largest upper plates were made from three pieces
joined to each other by bronze hinges as were the collar units beneath. The lorica segmentata
was superior to mail in both manufacturing and as armor. However, the armor’s chief advantage
was in its weight, around 12lb, depending upon the thickness of plates used. Plates were made
by hammer work, and Bishop and Coulston note that an analysis of surviving fragments of iron
plates of the lorica segmentata type show that they had not been hardened in any way, although
the Romans are known to have been aware of this technique. They also suggest that Roman
armorers deliberately produced ‘soft’ armor that could absorb the force of a blow as it crumpled.
This softness allowed the metal to deform extensively, absorbing the impact of weapons and
denying them the resistance needed to penetrate effectively. Massey cites evidence of
contemporary arrowhead types used against this type of armor. On no occasion did arrowheads
of any type tested afford lethal penetration. Shots directed at this type of armor either glanced
off or gave minimal penetration. This effectiveness was apparently due to a combination of the
softness of the metal and the internal gap between the plates. Massey also proposes that up until
the introduction of lorica segmentata in Claudian times there was no armor form in widespread
use which could guarantee the wearer’s safety against arrow attack. This armor was also
especially fortified in shoulder-defense. As such it may have normally been employed by
particular legions, notably those fighting the Celts, whose style of fighting and use of weapons
such as the long sword posed a particular threat to the head and shoulders of the line
infantryman. Segmented plate armor had disadvantages as well. Most notable is the loss of
protection to the thighs and upper arms. Simkins states that during the Emperor Trajan’s Dacian
campaign, the Romans fought against adversaries armed with long scythe-like swords called
falx. These were capable of reaching past the legionnaire’s scutum (a large curved shield) to
injure the unprotected sword arm. This weapon may have also endangered the soldiers’ legs
which from Republican times were bare, protection here being compromised for the sake of
mobility. However, the Adamklissi monument suggests that legionnaires in these two campaigns
may have augmented their protection with greaves and segmental armguards similar to those
worn by gladiators.
The archaeological record provides rich evidence of this type of armor. Excavation has
provided more evidence of this form of cuirass than both scale and mail. The most important
discovery was made in 1964, at the site of the Roman station of Corstopitum in Northumberland
(Corbridge) at Hadrian’s Wall, when two complete sets of this type were found in a wooden
chest buried below the floor of a timber building of the Flavian period fort. This is the only site
where this type of armor has been found in a reasonably complete state, despite the fact that
copper alloy buckles, hinges, hooks and loops of this armor are a common find on 1st century
Roman military sites throughout Europe and the Golan Heights in Israel, indicating its
Another pattern of lorica segmentata has been identified and tentatively reconstructed from
fragments found in the well in the headquarters building at Newstead near Melrose in Scotland.
Simkins suggests that this pattern was probably developed in the later years of the 1st century
and is the model for the majority of representations of legionary soldiers on Trajan’s Column.
It is difficult to tell how long the earlier Corbridge pattern lorica remained in use until it was
eventually replaced by the Newstead type. They may have continued for quite some time after
the introduction of the Newstead type for two reasons. First, like the replacement of mail by
segmented armor types, re-equipping legions with new armor was expensive; and second, armor
which was still in a serviceable condition remained useful regardless of age. The Newstead
type of cuirass is a much simplified pattern in which the elaborate fittings of the older patterns
(such as buckles and ties) have been discarded. The hinges have been replaced by simple rivets,
and the belt and buckle fastenings by hooks. The shoulder plates are riveted together and the
girdle lames are larger than previous lames, although probably reduced to five or six pairs, the
lower two pairs being replaced by a single pair of wide plates. The inner shoulder-guard plate in
this type is a single strip instead of three plates hinged together, coming down much further at
the front and back. This deep inflexible breast and upper back plates were laminated in the
same way as the girdles and held together by internal leather straps. The simplification of the
lorica segmentata indicates that earlier designs were probably over engineered and the complex
cuirass types were both labor and maintenance intensive and more prone to fall apart. This
form of cuirass was used extensively for most of this period due to its successful form. In
contrast to the earlier armors the lorica segmentata was flexible, lighter and easier to maintain
and repair. The design of this armor also adapted and evolved in response to the fighting
techniques of a number of different enemies and the economic needs of Rome at this time.
Armor has much to tell about the Roman Army, its method of waging war, and the economy
of the first century. The change in military equipment illustrates a process whereby Roman
forces borrowed the technology of other people whom they came into conflict. These adaptions
are illustrated by the cuirass forms taken from the Greeks, and the Celts. Innovation occurred
using the available military and civilian technology to counter a threat posed by a particular
enemy. Thus by the 1st century A.D. much of the soldiers’ equipment, including the cuirass, was
derived from enemies of earlier periods. The four types of cuirass identified in this paper have
their own characteristics and variations. They all have benefits or drawbacks in terms of
protection, mobility and cost. There appears to be a trend toward the most favorable balance
between these three factors which ultimately led to the introduction of lorica segmentata and
then its simplification of form.
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