Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds The Society of Antiquaries at Newcastle upon Tyne have held now for the nation a very large number of items of Roman military equipment in their extensive collections, now cared for in the Great North Museum here in Newcastle. Many of those pieces of military equipment have actually been formative in our understanding of how the Roman army looked, how it dressed. And the museum here displays in two reconstructions a classic manifestation of how we see Roman soldiers, and one that demonstrates what we see as a key distinction between legionary, or citizen soldiers, and auxiliary soldiers, that is, soldiers serving in units that allow non-citizens into their ranks.
Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds The two figures here are dressed as we believe soldiers would have been dressed in the late first, in the case of the figure on my left, and early second century, but the contrast here is deeper. Our figure on the left is actually representing a legionary soldier. It’s a classic, and probably to many of you, a familiar image of the legionary soldier, characterised by lorica segmentata, this plate armour, a curved shield, or scutum, and a weighted javelin, or a pilum. He also has a gladius, frequently referred to as a short sword, here on his right hip. He contrasts with the auxiliary figure, who has a flat shield, or clipeus, a coat of lorica hamata, or mail, and a spear, or hasta.
Skip to 1 minute and 53 seconds And that contrast is a contrast that I think probably did hold true for troop types in the first and second century. Probably by the third century, it was starting to become less significant.
Skip to 2 minutes and 7 seconds When we look at these two figures, therefore, they represent a material manifestation of status ideas in Roman society, the important distinction between citizen and non-citizen, something that runs throughout Roman society, but also even onto the battlefield itself. There are other points of detail that we could explore further in terms of our study of Roman military equipment, but for the moment and as we go forward in this course, I hope that that served to underscore the difference between the equipment used by legionary soldiers and auxiliary soldiers in the first and second centuries AD.
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 armour, 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