Roman Legionary 509 BC to 170 AD

The Gallic sack of Rome can be best described as a catalyst for Rome. Although the arrival of the Gauls can possibly be credited with a few developments in its own right, most notably the use of the heavy javelin, its biggest impact was in accelerating a number of existing trends in Roman society. This included bringing the community, and particularly the local clans, together into a single, cohesive whole and unifying them all under the banner of Rome. Although this process was well under way previously, the Gallic sack seems to have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the archaic way of life, and particularly the clan-based approach to war, was no longer a viable option. In the aftermath of the sack, Rome did everything she could to increase her manpower and develop a military model to protect against further attacks. This included incorporating new peoples into her citizen body (and military ranks) via the creation of new tribes and municpia, along with the full-time reversion to the consular tribunate and eventually the creation of the consulship.

Rome’s increased internal unity and cohesion also allowed a more concerted approach to land acquisition and ownership, generally exploited through the creation of ager publicus, which gradually developed into a territorial empire. Evidently initiated to satiate the Romans’ increased appetite for land, but tempered by the desire to maintain her manpower reserves and control both the territory and those occupying it (in contrast to previous practice), Rome very quickly carved out a massive Central Italian empire during the course of the fourth century BC. This led the city into increased conflicts with a number of Italian peoples, including the other Latin communities and tribes, as her aggressive and expansionist policies started to impact upon them. This ultimately resulted in a series of wars against the Latins, Samnites, Etruscans and Greeks of Magna Graecia in the second half of the fourth century BC, which further shaped Rome’s military and imperial designs.

The fourth century BC also saw the introduction of some new military equipment in the Roman army, which seems to have come from two different sources. The first source was local, and was perhaps a result of an increasing number of urban, and probably ‘middle class’, men engaging in warfare under the banners of the consular tribunes, and later consuls. These men, although by no means poor (arguably analogous with the zeugitae or ‘hoplite-class’ in Greece), were not from the wealthiest segments of society either and also had very little previous connection to warfare. As a result, we can probably link to these soldiers the increasing use of simple but functional helmets, like the increasingly popular montefortino type, and a general ‘democratization’ of military equipment across the board. Associated with this is the use of a new type of heavy javelin, which makes it appearance in Central Italy at this time. Prior to this time, javelins are rather hard to identify in the archaeological record. Although spears had most likely been thrown for centuries, if not millennia, in Italy, for the most part they were of the ‘multi-purpose’ variety – spears which could be used as either a thrusting weapon or a thrown one. During the course of the fourth century BC, however, there is increasing evidence for purpose-designed heavy javelins being used throughout Italy – a development which may be associated with the growing number of Gauls in the peninsula. Although by no means unique to the Gauls, the type of heavy javelin which appears in the fourth century BC in Italy is very close to the type of weapon favoured by those living in the modern-day regions of southern Austria and southern France, just the other side of the Alps. It is therefore probable that this military development arrived with the Gallic tribesmen in Italy and was slowly adopted by the Italic peoples.

The fourth century BC marked a major turning point in Rome’s relationship with the Latins. All of the developments of the previous century, including the rise of more cohesive polities/communities, the decline of the region’s mobile clans/gentes, the increased importance of land and agriculture and the arrival of the Gauls, served to break apart any regional unity which had previously existed and created new, more localized divisions. Rome and the Latins still shared a culture and a language, but they no longer shared a single vision for regional security. Rome, in the north, found herself increasingly in opposition to the communities in the south of Latium, who seem to have viewed the Samnites (and perhaps Rome herself) as a far greater threat than the Gauls. Each community in Latium seems to have developed its own distinct identity, which led to an increasingly fractured and factionalized region and ultimately resulted in a final war between Rome and those Latin communities who felt most threatened by her rise to power, generally those located in the southern half of the region. Rome’s victory over these communities, and the resultant settlement of 338 BC, allowed for a reinterpretation of the relationships in Latium which took into account the changing political situation. Rome emerged as the undisputed master of Central Italy and had at her disposal a huge reserve of manpower through the creation of a number of municpia as well as a series of alliances.

This situation changed the Roman army forever. First, it gave Rome a reserve of men which allowed the city to compete with the major Hellenistic powers around the Mediterranean. Without the settlement of 338 BC, Rome would have probably never defeated the Samnites in the final decades of the fourth century BC, let alone a force like that led by Pyrrhus in the early third century BC. The creation of so many new citizens, albeit most of them without voting rights, gave Rome the resources to fight in major conflicts and to come back from defeats time and again. Second, the fourth century BC and the rise of cohesive polities in Latium, most notably at Rome itself, allowed greater strategic vision and planning. With more cohesive communities came the ability and motivation to invest in military infrastructure – roads, colonies and navies. This type of expenditure would have been unthinkable under the more flexible model of the fifth century BC, where Rome’s leaders and Roman warfare seems to have had only an ephemeral connection to the city. But with the rise of a Roman nobility, which maintained links to the community for generations, and an increasing realization by the community that warfare could benefit everyone and not just the soldiers involved – generally through the creation and use of ager publicus – war became a community endeavour. Finally, the settlement of 338 BC and Rome’s conquest of Central Italy created a situation where continued conquest and warfare was almost unavoidable. While the principle of ‘defensive imperialism’ as the main cause of Rome’s expansion has been rightly criticised by scholars such as W.V. Harris and Nathan Rosenstein, Rome’s new position in Central Italy did make conflict likely. Rome’s involvement in Campania had already drawn her into conflict with the Samnites and this would continue for another fifty years. Rome was also increasingly involved with the Greek communities of Magna Graecia, which would ultimately lead to the arrival of Pyrrhus. So while Rome might not have been an entirely reluctant and defensive conqueror, the city also had quite a few new borders and interests to protect.

The late fourth and third centuries BC saw Rome’s armies and envoys venturing further and further afield, for increasingly diverse reasons and interests, the core themes of integration and a developing civic identity are still evident and arguably still driving much of Rome’s military expansion and development.

Rome’s wars during this period, from the mid-fourth century to the mid-third century BC, have been the subject of intense study and debate – particularly during the past fifty years. Beginning with Rome’s great conflict with the Samnites (most notably the Second Samnite War or The Great Samnite War), and followed by Rome’s war against Pyrrhus and the first conflict with the Carthaginians, the city’s foreign interactions during this period were influenced heavily by her new alliance structures and her purported desire to defend the interests of her allies against foreign enemies. Rome’s histories for this period are therefore often framed in terms of a ‘defensive imperialism’, where Rome is portrayed as the reluctant conqueror – being dragged into war after war by her allies, arguably against her will or in pursuit of a greater strategic security. These wars are therefore seen as iura bella (‘just wars’), or defensive wars, although once Rome became involved in a conflict, however reluctantly, the city pursued it to the end – throwing the entirety of her resources into it. It was this dedication to warfare on the part of the Romans, the ability and determination to return to the battlefield time and again after defeats to Pyrrhus or to build a fleet from scratch in order to engage with the Carthaginians, which is often thought to be the secret to their success in this period. That, and an increasingly evolved army which learned from and adapted to each enemy it fought. Or at least this is what the Romans later claimed.

This simple motif of Rome as the reluctant conqueror has rightly been challenged in recent decades, with W.V. Harris and more recently Nathan Rosenstein both presenting the case for Rome being anything but an unwilling or unenthusiastic participant when it came to war.1 Warfare formed an important part of elite identity going back to the early Iron Age, and Rome’s aristocracy – although increasingly sophisticated and urban – retained a strong martial character throughout the Republican period. However, the tension between the Roman elite’s desire to engage in warfare for personal reasons and the evident awkwardness and unpreparedness which seems to have marked the city’s approach in the aftermath of this warfare has generally defied a single explanation. Rome’s apparently ad hoc approach to empire in the middle Republic suggests that a grand strategy was lacking during this period. But at the core of Rome’s foreign interactions, underpinning her reaction and response to the requests of her allies and driving the ambitions of her elite, were a set of cultural principles with their origins back in the Archaic period. As a result, although this period clearly represents a new stage and period in Roman warfare and the development of empire, it also needs to be understood as a continuation of previous practices and the result of the same forces which led to Rome’s consolidation and her domination over the Latins. The present chapter will endeavour to lay out some of these principles (although a full treatment would require an entire volume – indeed perhaps several! – on its own).

Our understanding of the development of the Roman army as a fighting body, and as a social and cultural institution, has also been revised in recent years. The nature and characteristics of the Roman army during this period have been a subject of interest since the time of Livy, as this period marks the first time that the surviving literary accounts offer anything which resembles a real description of battlefield tactics and organization (Livy 8.8, discussed in detail later, being the most obvious example). This period is therefore generally recognized as the point of origin for not only Rome’s territorial empire, but also the Roman army which won it – the so-called manipular legion – although what made the Roman army so different during this period is sometimes hard to determine. Rome’s historians all held that the Roman army, at its core, had remained remarkably stable and static during the Republic. The Servian Constitution, supposedly set out in the late Regal period, created the wealth and age-based framework whereby Rome’s population was divided up, equipped and organized into a civic militia. While many superficial details changed during the following centuries (most notably the equipment), and sometimes quite quickly, the core principles which underpinned the army were thought to have remained roughly the same. What made the army so successful was therefore thought to be the way in which it changed its superficial aspects – its equipment, formation and tactics – in response to different enemies and situations. And as Rome faced off against more and stronger opponents during the late fourth and third centuries BC, these enemies were thought to have shaped the Roman army – like a whetstone on a sword edge – into the supreme fighting force which ultimately conquered the entirety of the Mediterranean world. However, this development narrative has been slowly revised as the major changes which are evident in Roman society during the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries BC have also been applied to the army, and as military change is more clearly understood. It was once thought, based on military models produced during the Enlightenment, that armies acted rationally and could change their tactics and equipment as easily as one might change a set of clothing. However, an increasing body of sociological and anthropological work has revealed that these types of superficial changes are subject to the same social and cultural rules which govern other aspects of society – and indeed these rules are arguably more important in the sphere of warfare. Military changes very rarely occur in response to the simple arrival of a new technology or approach, but are instead dictated by a range of principles which actually favour conservatism over innovation. The emergence of the manipular legion of the fourth century BC, although most likely a response to new stimuli, was therefore also probably part of a much longer sequence of development in Rome.


In early republican days, each legionary was expected to provide his own uniform, equipment and personal weapons, and to replace them when they were worn out, damaged or lost. After the consul Marius’ reforms, the State provided uniforms, arms and equipment to conscripts.

The tunic and personal legionary equipment remained basically unchanged for hundreds of years. By Augustan times, the legionary wore a woolen tunic made of two pieces of cloth sewn together, with openings for the head and arms, and with short sleeves. It came to just above the knees at the front, a little lower at the back. The military tunic was shorter than that worn by civilians. In cold weather, it was not unusual for two tunics to be worn, one over the other. Sometimes more than two were worn—Augustus wore up to four tunics at a time in winter months.

With no examples surviving to the present day, the color of the legionary tunic has always been hotly debated. Many historians believe that it was a red berry color and that this was common to legions and guard units. Some authors argue that legionary tunics were white. Vitruvius, Rome’s chief architect during the early decades of the empire, wrote that, of all the natural colors used in dying fabrics and for painting, red and yellow were by far the easiest and cheapest to obtain.

Second-century Roman general Arrian described the tunics worn by cavalry during exercises as predominantly a red berry color, or, in some cases, an orange-brown color—a product of red. He also described multicolored cavalry exercise tunics. But no tunic described by Arrian was white or natural in color. Red was also the color of unit banners, and of legates’ ensigns and cloaks.

Tacitus, in describing Vitellius’ entry into Rome in July AD 69, noted that marching ahead of the standards in Vitellius’ procession were “the camp-prefects, the tribunes, and the highest-ranked centurions, in white robes.” These were the loose ceremonial robes worn by officers when they took part in religious processions. That Tacitus specifically notes they were white indicates that he was differentiating these garments from the non-white tunics worn by the military.

The one color that legionaries and auxiliaries were least likely to wear was blue. This color, not unnaturally, was associated by Romans with the sea. Pompey the Great’s son Sextus Pompeius believed he had a special association with Neptune, god of the sea, and in the 40s to 30s BC, when admiral of Rome’s fleets in the western Mediterranean, he wore a blue cloak to honor Neptune. After Sextus rebelled and was defeated by Marcus Agrippa’s fleets, Octavian granted Agrippa the right to use a blue banner. Apart from the men of the 30th Ulpia Legion, whose emblems related to Neptune, if any of Rome’s military wore blue in the imperial era, it would have been her sailors and/or marines.

Whatever the weather, and irrespective of the fact that auxiliaries in the Roman army, both infantry and cavalry, wore breeches, Roman legionaries did not begin wearing pants, which were for centuries considered foreign, until the second century. Some scholars suggest that legionaries wore nothing beneath their tunics, others suggest they wore a form of loin cloth, which was common among civilians.

Over his tunic the legionary could wear a subarmalis, a sleeveless padded vest, and over that a cuirass—an armored vest. Because of their body armor, legionaries were classified as “heavy infantry.” Early legionary armor took the form of a sleeveless leather jerkin on to which were sown small ringlets of iron mail. Legionaries and most auxiliaries continued to wear the mail cuirass for many centuries; there was no concept of superseding military hardware as there is today.

Early in the first century a new form of armor began to enter service, the lorica segmentata, made up of solid metal segments joined by bronze hinges and held together by leather straps, covering torso and shoulders. This segmented legionary armor was the forerunner of the armor worn by mounted knights in the Middle Ages. By AD 75, a simplified version of the segmented infantry armor was in widespread use. Called today the Newstead type, because an example was found in modern times at Newstead in Scotland, it stayed in service for the next 300 years.

On his head, the legionary wore a conical helmet of bronze or iron. There were a number of variations on the evolving “jockey cap” design, but most had the common features of hinged cheek flaps of metal, tied together under the chin, a horizontal projection at the rear to protect the back of the neck, like a fireman’s helmet, and a small brow ridge at the front.

First- and second-century legionary helmets unearthed in modern times have revealed occasional traces of felt inside, suggesting a lining. In the fourth century, the Roman officer Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of “the cap which one of us wore under his helmet.” This cap was probably made of felt, for Ammianus described how he and two rank and file soldiers with him used the cap “in the manner of a sponge” to soak up water from a well to quench their thirst in the Mesopotamian desert. By the end of the fourth century, legionaries were wearing “Pamonian leather caps” beneath their helmets, which, said Vegetius, “were formerly introduced by the ancients to a different design,” indicating the caps beneath helmets had been in common use for a long time.

After a legion had been wiped out in AD 86 by the lethally efficient falx, the curved, double-handed Dacian sword, which had sliced through helmets of unfortunate Roman troops, legion helmets had cruciform reinforcing strips added over the crown to provide better protection. It was not uncommon for owners of helmets to inscribe their initials on the inside or on the cheek flap. A legionary helmet unearthed at Colchester in Britain had three sets of initials stamped inside it, indicating that helmets passed from owner to owner. In Syria in AD 54, lax legionaries of the 6th Ferrata and 10th Fretensis legions sold their helmets while still in service.

During republican times, Rome’s heavy-armored troops, the hastati, wore eagle feathers on their helmets to make themselves seem taller to their enemies. By the time of Julius Caesar, this had become a crest of horsehair on the top of legionary helmets. These crests were worn in battle until the early part of the first century, before being relegated to parade use. The color of the crest is debatable. Some archaeological discoveries suggest they were dyed yellow. Arrian, governor of Cappadocia in the reign of Hadrian, described yellow helmet crests on the thousands of Roman cavalrymen under his command. The feathers of the republican hastati were sometimes purple, sometimes black, which possibly evolved into purple or black legionary helmet crests.

The helmet was the only item of equipment a legionary was permitted to remove while digging trenches and building fortifications. Helmets were slung around the neck while on the march. The legionary also wore a neck scarf, tied at the throat, originally to prevent his armor from chafing his neck. The scarf became fashionable, with auxiliary units quickly adopting them, too. It is possible that different units used different colored scarves. On his feet the legionary wore heavy-duty hobnailed leather sandals called caligulae, which left his toes exposed. At his waist he wore the cingulum, an apron of four to six metal strands which by the fourth century was no longer used.


The imperial legionary’s first-use weapon was the javelin, the pilum, of which he would carry two or three, the shorter 5 feet (152 centimeters) in length, the longer, 7 feet (213 centimeters). Primarily thrown, javelins were weighted at the business end and, from Marius’ day, were designed to bend once they struck, to prevent the enemy from throwing them back. “At present they are seldom used by us,” said Vegetius at the end of the fourth century, “but are the principal weapon of the barbarian heavy-armed foot.” By Vegetius’ day, a lighter spear, with less penetrating power, was used by Roman troops.

The legionary carried a short sword, the gladius, its blade 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, double-edged, and with a sharp point for effective jabbing. Spanish steel was preferred, leading to the gladius becoming known as “the Spanish sword.” It was kept in a scabbard, which was worn on the legionary’s right side, in contrast to officers, who wore it on the left.

By the fourth century, the gladius had been replaced by a longer sword similar to the spatha carried by auxiliary cavalry from Augustus’ time. The legionary was also equipped with a short dagger, the pugio, worn in a scabbard on the left hip, which was still being carried into the fifth century. Sword and dagger scabbards were frequently highly decorated with silver, gold, jet and ceramic inlay, even precious stones.

The legionary shield, the scutum, was curved and elongated. Polybius described the legionary shield as convex in shape, with straight sides, 4 feet (121 centimeters) long and 2½ feet (75 centimeters) across. The thickness at the rim was a palm’s breadth. It consisted of two layers of wood fastened together with bull’s hide glue. The outer surface was covered with canvas and then with smooth calf-skin, glued in place. The edges of the shield were rimmed with iron strips, as a protection against sword blows and wear and tear. The center of the shield was fixed with an iron or bronze boss, to which the handle was attached on the reverse side. The boss could deflect the blows of swords, javelins and stones.

On to the leather surface of the shield was painted the emblem of the legion to which the owner belonged. Vegetius, writing at the end of the fourth century, said that “every cohort had its shields painted in a manner peculiar to itself.” While Vegetius was talking in the past tense, several examples suggest that each cohort of the Praetorian Guard may have used different thunderbolt emblems on their shields. The shield was always carried on the left arm in battle, with a strap over the arm taking much of the weight. On the march, it was protected from the elements with a leather cover, and slung over the legionary’s left shoulder. By the third century, the legionary shield had become oval, and much less convex.

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