Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Empire strikes back (part 2): The appearance of the Roman army in 235 AD

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 303, November/December 2015 - the Journal of the Society of Ancients

Archaeological records from the military revival period under the Balkan soldier-emperors of the fourth century reveal an important change of equipment compared to that of the “classic” legionary.

The Infantry

Tunics, scarves and cloaks
Although the Arch of Severus, dedicated in 203 AD, still shows Roman soldiers wearing a style of tunic traditional during the late Republic and early Empire, the third century saw the widespread introduction of long-sleeved woollen tunics.  This was probably due to the increasing influence of Germanic troops and mercenaries serving in the Roman armies, as well as influences from the Eastern half of the empire, where long-sleeved tunics were also commonplace.
There has been much debate on the colour of the Roman military tunic.  The overwhelming impression left by Roman artists is that Roman soldiers wore either white or red tunics, but white tunics are predominant in artistic representations until the end of the third century.  It is now certain that soldiers owned more than one tunic.  By the reign of Diocletian (r. 284-305 AD) at least three tunics of varying quality were available. Senior officers owned numerous tunics and cloaks.  An explanation could be that soldiers wore differently coloured tunics for different occasions, e.g. a white wool tunic for everyday wear, a bleached wool or linen tunic for best, and a red tunic when they went into action.
Most of the paintings seem to show soldiers in undress uniform, which would explain the white tunics. Soldiers that are fully armed are often shown in red.  The colour red was associated with the god Mars, who is represented wearing a red tunic and who had red clothing dedicated to him by the red Circus faction.  Red tunics were popular throughout the ancient world and are found in Greek, Macedonian, Samnite, Etruscan and Ptolemaic sources.  It is interesting that red depicted in paintings is generally not scarlet or deep red, but a pinkish colour.  This might refer to a bright red colour that had faded with use. The number of salmon pink textile fragments found at Masada, Israel, seems to support this idea.

Fresco, Dura Europos, 239 AD
Tombstones discovered at Apamea, Syria, dating from between 214 and 252 AD show a wide range of junior officers, specialists and ordinary soldiers, all of whom wear long-sleeved tunics.  In a fresco at Dura Europos in Syria, dating from 239 AD, the tribune of a cohort and the other soldiers depicted all wear long-sleeved white tunics with purple decorative bands around the sleeves. One soldier wears a white cloak, the cloaks of the other soldiers being a yellow-brown colour, with those of the ordinary soldiers appearing to be of a coarser material. The yellow-brown cloaks were probably made from undyed wool that had retained its natural lanolin and therefore a degree of waterproofing.  The rectangular, later semi-circular sagum cloak, worn by soldiers for centuries, remained the most popular cloak in the third century.  The hooded paenula seemed to have lost its appeal as of the late second century.   Based on available evidence there does not appear to have been a distinction between legionary and auxiliary tunic colours, which is not surprising in view of the use of the same supply sources and perhaps an official policy of “Romanising” the allies.  There is more variation in the colours of cloaks, which may have reflected a system of rank distinction.
The scarf, known as sudarium and later as focale, was primarily worn to protect the neck from chafing when wearing close-fitting body-armour, and from the leather thong which fastens the cheek pieces. As in various sculptures scarves are almost invariably depicted tucked beneath either the body armour or clothing, their exact shape is difficult to determine.  Usually, the scarf was worn inside the laminated lorica segmentata, probably to hold the position of the segmentata armour around the neck. With the other armour its protective function could be realised by wrapping it around the neck.  Hence, the scarf is not often seen with the tunic alone.  Some authors suggest that the scarf was used as a badge to identify individual units through its colour.  Apart from this, the scarf also protected the neck against wind, cold and sweat (hence its name sudarium).

Trousers, leggings, leg wrappings and leg bindings
Fairly tight-fitting long trousers (bracae), breeches or leggings with leg bindings (probably called fascia crurales), had also become commonplace.  Bracae may have been fitted with waist bands to which belt-loops were attached (cf. the find of the trousers found at Thorsberg in Schleswig-Holstein).
Trousers were often tucked into boots, or fastened with leg bindings around the calves.  The Emperor Severus Alexander is known to have always worn them.   The legions of Maximinus Thrax probably wore breeches, whereas long trousers came into fashion in the second half of the third century. Trousers, breeches, leggings, leg wrappings and leg bindings are generally represented as dark red, blue, brown or even grey-black.
Leg wrappings were large rectangular pieces of cloth, probably made from wool or felt.  Some sculptural renditions portray the strings which fastened them below the knee and above the ankle. Leg bindings were made of long strips of bandage-like textiles, wound around the leg like WWI puttees.

There is very little evidence that Roman wore any underwear other than an under-tunic (subucla) and most probably a loincloth (subligatorium).

During the third century helmets became deeper, and with more pronounced sloping neck guards. The distinction between cavalry and infantry models slowly disappeared.  Helmets were of the older Niedermörmter type, the last known Roman helmet to display Gallic origins (ribbing of the nape and a strip of pearled decoration).  Other types were the Niederbieber helmet and the more modern ridge type showing Persian influence.  Deep helmets with raised iron reinforcements like those of the Niederbieber, Niedermörmter and Heddernheim type were fitted with carrying handles fixed on the upper side of the large neck-guards.

Niedermörmter type helmet
Helmets were padded with wool or a felt-like material, secured at the rim with a resin-like material that became sticky when hot water was applied.  Cheek-pieces were equally padded. Strips of leather may have been used to line the bottom of the padding at the rim of the helmet.
To absorb the impact of hits on the head, Russell Robinson assumes that linings, made of a padded fabric – possibly a coarse linen –, did not touch the top of the helmet. Linings would have had four or more tabs that could be drawn together with a lace, so that it could fit any size of head.

Cuirass and greaves
Until the mid-fourth century, when according to Vegetius infantry armour was abandoned, iron mail, bronze scales (lorica squamata) and laminated iron plate cuirasses (lorica segmentata) were still common body armour.   In the first half of the third century iron mail had the shape of a large T-shirt, while in second half it usually had long sleeves and could cover a great part of the thighs.  Scale-armour was reinforced with breast-plates. Additional armour came in the form of manicae (laminated iron arm protection), greaves and even thigh armour.  Lorica segmentata was on its way out, but would be used at least until the middle of the third century.  To the Romans, military equipment that was still in serviceable condition remained useful, regardless of its age.
As body armour would not make the wearer immune to blunt trauma, a padded undergarment of some sort (thoracomachus or subarmalis) was worn underneath, to help absorb the force of a blow, as well as provide an extra protective layer.  It also counteracted the weight and friction of the armour, especially in the case of mail armour.  Greaves were worn by cavalry and officers. Regular infantry and auxiliary troops often wore greaves as well, but less often than under Caracalla.  Cavalry greaves are known to have been exquisitely adorned.

Plumbata or martiobarbulus
Swords and daggers
The longer spatha gained prominence with the infantry, though it did not completely replace the gladius.  The handles were made of wood or bone. Swords were still mainly used to thrust, not to slash with.  To facilitate drawing, the spatha was worn on the left hip, rather than on the right as was the case with the shorter gladius in earlier times, and suspended by a wide baldric. Sheaths were made of wood, covered with leather, and no longer decorated with metal fittings.  Chapes were made of non-ferrous metals.   In the third quarter of the third century, the pugio was still modelled after its original Spanish prototype, though its length had grown to 30 cm.

Shield and spears
The tile-shaped scutum of the legions was still in use during the middle of the third century, but did not survive the century.  Most legionaries were equipped with flat or slightly dished oval shields. Such shields may have been of a laminate wood construction, but finds from Dura Europos (ca. 256-7 AD) have shown that many consisted of a simple plank construction, reinforced with iron bars and edged with stitched-on rawhide.

Technique for throwing martiobarbuli

Though the classic pilum was slowly replaced by defensive thrusting spears and javelins and lead-weighted darts called plumbatae or martiobarbuli, it never disappeared form the standard legionary equipment.  It was gradually replaced by a more modern version called spiculum. This was basically a socketed pilum with a shorter iron point and better useable as a thrusting spear, while still maintaining some of its penetrative power when thrown. Legionaries usually carried five martiobarbuli each, slotted inside their shields.

Military belts were called cingulum or balteus. During the reign of Severus the ring-buckle belt was introduced, which would stay a military symbol until the end of the third century.  Frame-buckle belts were also in use. However, hardly any belts have survived the ravages of time.
A belt was used to hitch up the tunic above the knee to allow freedom of movement.  Civilians generally wore their tunics blow the knee or loose to ankle length. Depriving a soldier of his belt, so that is tunic hung loose like a civilian’s was in fact a minor punishment. This practice continued into the Late Empire.

By the third century the traditional open hobnailed caligae have disappeared completely from the archaeological record, though they still appear on imperial sculptures.  Extremely popular was the front-fastening boot with integrally cut laces (calceus or calceamentum). Though other older techniques continued in use, shoes with openwork cut-outs and straps were now made from a single piece of leather, rather than the layered construction of earlier times. Nailed footwear was still the standard in the third century.

The Cavalry

The presence of cavalry units at the Harzhorn has been established as well.  Radiocarbon dating has established that the bones of a horse found in a pit at the slope, one meter below the surface, belonged to an animal that died at some point between 230 and 240 AD.  The arrangement of the bones indicates that the horse was on its way up.

A recreation of Roman cavalry
The Roman cavalry horse was smaller than modern horses, somewhere between 130 and 150 cm high. None wore shoes.  Cavalry horses operating away from the main body would be carrying a javelin case, water bottle, cooking utensils and rations attached to the saddle.  The soldier’s cloak would be rolled up behind.  Chamfrons to protect the horse’s head were common.  It is unlikely that the Roman cavalry led by Maximinus Thrax contained any cataphracts units, as these are unsuitable for wooded terrain.

Saddles were of the typical four-pommelled type, like modern rodeo saddles, held in place by a girth strap, breech strap and breastplate.  The saddle frame was made of wood with bronze pommel plates, typically padded with felt or hair and covered in goat-skin.  The front pommels held the thighs down, while the back ones fitted tightly to the hips to stop the rider from slipping backwards.

Helmets and masks
The Roman cavalry at the Harzhorn must have worn masks, though none of these have been found. Unlike popular belief, cavalry masks were not limited to cavalry shows, but were meant to protect the face, as was the case with the helmets of mediaeval knights.  Moreover, the psychological terror of enemies facing masked riders makes it unlikely that the helmet was merely used for games – cf. the masks worn by Samurai warriors up to the late 19th century.  A distinction between a 'parade' helmet and a 'war' helmet was not conceivable in the ancient world: both could be used for war, with the most beautiful specimens used also for parades and games.  Most finds of masked cavalry helmets in the third century AD were made along the Limes, where cavalry units were stationed. 

Roman cavalry mask
During staged fights the experimental archaeologist Junkelmann and colleagues found out that they would have incurred heavy facial wounds, had they not been protected by masks.  They also established that sight with Roman cavalry helmets was generally much better than with mediaeval helmets.
A well-known type of cavalry helmet is the “Heddernheim” helmet.  This type of helmet was made of iron, elaborately decorated with applied bronze sheet, and engraved and embossed with designs of Thracian origin.  As was the case with all other helmets of that class, the Heddernheim helmet was fitted with a peak, seated along the top of the brow-plate and secured by a notch in the lower end of the forward serpent and a pair of rivets.  The large antha on the crown of the skull is pierced in the top and probably held a streamer of horse-hair. The manufacture of deep iron cavalry helmets of plainer type continued at the same time. The cheek-guards, however, were now made into a single element, which was not attached to the skull-piece with hinges, but was simply tucked under the brow edge and then strapped behind the nape.  Pseudo-attic helmets of the Theilenhofen type were also common.
Theilenhofen cavalry helmet

Roman cavalry arms and armour
Cavalry armour had to be more flexible than infantry armour, hence cavalry usually wore either mail or scale armour.  Cavalry greaves usually had additional ankle protection. Shields were either oval or hexagonal, made of wood and covered in leather, felt or cloth with metal rim fittings.  Cavalry swords were of the spatha type, similar to the ones should by the infantry.  At the Harzhorn contingents of mounted archers are known to have been present as well.

The German Armies in the early Third Century

Germanic arms and armour
Partly by imitation, partly by trade, the equipment of German warriors of the time was heavily influenced by that of the Roman army and it is often difficult to make clear distinctions between the two.  Roman swords of the spatha type, whose handles were often modified, were widely available in Germania. With certain types of arrow-tips, it is virtually impossible to make a distinction at all.  The difference between Roman and Germanic spear tips is more significant.
The quality and decorations of weapons and shields was an indication of the status and rank of the warrior in question. In the third century AD Germans appear to have been equipped with both a lance and with a spear, both with iron tips.  The lance was meant for stabbing and chopping, while the spear, usually with barbed tips, was used for throwing from a short distance.   It has been established that spears were mass-produced in central workshops and distributed among the warriors.
Germanic spear tip, photo Th. Schwarz
Based on finds, it has been established that Germanic warriors were lightly armed and that the use of chain mail, scale armour or breast plates was not very common and limited to the Germanic elite. The same goes for helmets.  As a result, Germanic light infantry was able to move nimbly, both in fights as well as in woods or swampy areas.
The construction of bows was clearly different. Whereas Roman auxiliaries used humidity-sensitive composite bows, the Germans used longbows made of yew, elm or hazel wood. Experiments have shown that Germanic longbows had a reach of 120 to 140 m. From a distance of 40 to 50 m., if they did not hit bone, arrows could completely pierce a human body.
Northern Germanic tribes often used iron battle axes with ca. 70 cm long handles that were used to hit and cut. Shields were 90 to 110 cm large, round and composed of five to eight single planks.  Research has shown that these shields were made of specially selected wood, were composed in a special way, carefully planed, glued together and covered with a thin sheet of rawhide.  The rawhide cover reinforced the construction, made the shield watertight and was used to be painted with organic colours.  It is likely that shields were produced by central workshops as well.  Shields may have had spiked bosses, which made them useable as an offensive weapon.  Germanic belt-fittings and horse-harnesses were usually made of iron, whereas the Roman variety tended to be made of bronze.  Catapults, slingshots or flaming arrows were not part of the Germanic equipment at all.

Germanic military dress consisted of functional garments, i.e. a pair of long chequered woollen or plain-coloured linen breeches, woollen or linen long-sleeved tunics, a military belt and a pair of leather sandals, usually without hobnails.  The belt was used to carry a large knife, a device to make fire and a piece of sharpening steel.
Below the (chequered) upper tunic a second belt was worn, which was used to store personal belongings, such as coins, a pair of pincers, a comb, a repair-kit and a razor.  This belt was probably worn over a linen short-sleeved tunic, serving as a kind of undershirt, to protect the belt from sweat and the body from chafing.  It is likely that underneath the breeches some sort of linen loincloth was worn.

Army size and tactics
Like that of most warrior societies, early Germanic warfare was an almost ritual part of life. Battles were limited to struggles between families, clans and tribes and were unlikely to become massive affairs.  This changed when contact with the advancing Romans was made. Warfare became more intensive, deadly and was waged on a larger scale.  Weapons and equipment improved and those Germans living close to the Rhine found themselves having to fight for survival.  This also caused tribes to form alliances and confederacies such as the Franks and the Alamanni.
At the same time many Germans started to serve in Roman armies. Those who returned to their tribes brought back with them the Roman ideas of command and control and great early German war leaders such as Ermin/Arminius and Marbod/Maroboduus had seen service in Roman armies, though Roman discipline could never be completely imposed on a typical heroic warrior society.

Leaders and followers
Germanic armies consisted usually of alliances of leaders, each of which had a selected retinue of warriors which would be equipped with weapons by its leader.  The better equipped a particular warrior-elite was, the more prestigious its leader.  Based on ancient sources, it is assumed that Germanic leaders would command between 500 and 2,000 warriors, predominantly in the age group of 15 to 30 years of age.  Not every German male was destined to become a warrior. The warrior was bound to his lord through a code of loyalty.  The chief, the strongest and most able warrior led by example. Tacitus states that “the chiefs fought for victory, the followers for their chief”. The followers had to “defend and protect” the chief, never deserting him and fighting to the death if necessary, since “to any fighting man death is better than a life of dishonour”, a principle still adhered to in WWII by the German SS (cf. “Meine Ehre heißt Treue – my honour is loyalty”).

A recreation of Alamanni
Power of Germanic leaders rested on strength, violence and success in war.  Weakness would lead to a removal from power by a stronger man.  However, in Tacitus’ days the power of Germanic kings was still not absolute or arbitrary.  Capital punishment, imprisonment or even floggings, for instance, were allowed to none but the priests and were in obedience to the god of war (Tiwas, Tyr or Tiu).
As long as things were going well, a Germanic chieftain had a good chance of maintaining an army in the field. However, as soon as it appeared that booty and glory would not be forthcoming, momentum would be lost and a campaign would quickly collapse.
Without a bureaucracy and cash economy to back them up, Germanic armies did not develop more than the most basic logistics.  This tended to keep offensive armies small and mobile, and able to live off the land, if need be.  At the same time, since Germans were unable to maintain a large army in one place long enough to starve out a determined town, they were also notoriously bad at siege warfare.   In Germania itself the latter would not have been much of an issue, due to the lack of fortified settlements there.

Battle tactics
Complicated tactics were difficult to attain, since the men in the ranks had not been drilled to carry out complex manoeuvres. The most well-known formation is the boar’s head, an attack formation which could be used by mounted and unmounted troops. Having a relatively narrow frontage, the boar’s head would have been fairly manoeuvrable and able to make swift changes of direction.  With the experienced men in the front knowing how to conform to the leader’s movement, the others only had to follow the men in front.
When attacking, fights would have been opened by the archers from a distance of 110 to 120 m. Spears and javelins were thrown from a distance of 40m., or less.  The next move would have been to take up formation with lances and shields. Close combat was carried out with axes, swords, spears and shields.  The shield-wall was a well-known defensive position, designed for steadiness and protection. The men would form up a tightly compressed group, shoulder to shoulder, with shields overlapping. This could be a linear formation, several ranks deep, perhaps facing out in all directions.   In open and/or flat terrain, however, Germanic warriors would not have stood a chance against a Roman army.

Sources and Suggestions for further Reading

  • Campbell, Duncan – Roman Legionary Fortresses 27 BC- AD 378, Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2006
  • Connolly, Peter – Tiberius Claudius Maximus, the cavalryman, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988
  • Cowan, Ross – Roman Legionary AD 287 – 337, Warrior 175, Osprey, Oxford 2015
  • Cowan, Ross – Römische Legionäre, Republik (58 v. – 69 n. Chr.) und Kaiserreich (161 -284 n. Chr.), Siegler Verlag GmbH, Königswinter, 2007
  • Junkelmann, Marcus – Reiter wie Statuen aus Erz, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1996
  • Künzl, Ernst, Die Germanen, Theiss WissenKompakt, Theiss, Stuttgart 2006
  • MacDowall, Simon – Late Roman Infantryman 236 - 565 AD, Warrior Series No. 9, Osprey, Oxford 1999
  • MacDowall, Simon – Germanic Warrior, Warrior Series No. 17, Osprey, Oxford 1996 (reprinted 2004)
  • Petersen, Daniel – The Roman Legions recreated in Colour Photographs, Windrow & Greene, Singapore 1992
  • Russell Robinson, H. – The Armour of Imperial Rome, Lionel Leventhal Ltd, London 1975
  • Simkins, Michael – The Roman Army from Hadrian to Constantine, Men-at-Arms Series, Osprey, London 1979
  • Simkins, Michael – Warriors of Rome, Blandford Cassell, London 1990
  • Sumner, Graham – Roman Military Clothing (2) AD 200-400, Men-at-Arms Series (390), Osprey, London 2003
  • Sumner, Graham – Roman Military Dress, The History Press, Stroud 2009
  • Vegetius – De Re Militari (Het Romeinse Leger, Handboek voor de Generaal, transl. by Fik Meijer), Atheneum, Amsterdam 2002
  • Wiegels, Rainer – Zu den Heeresformationen Roms an Rhein und oberer Donau in der Zeit des Severus Alexander und Maximinus Thrax, Klio 2014; 96(1): 93–143, Osnabrück  University 2014

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