Sources for late Roman military dress
So how do we know what soldiers looked like? There are a number of sources that provide evidence for the appearance of late Roman soldiers.
The arms and armour discovered through archaeological investigation provide the best evidence for the equipment used. The exact choice of equipment varies with each type of soldier – for example an infantryman, a cavalry trooper, or even an archer – as well as individually. Generally speaking, soldiers wore a helmet and coat of mail or scale-armour, and wielded a spear, a sword, and a shield. Other equipment was available, too, including bows of relatively simple and composite construction, javelins, and plumbatae – large, lead-weighted darts.
Other types of source provide evidence about the appearance of soldiers off the battlefield. These include: the Arch of Constantine in Rome; mosaics from the piazza Amerina; reverses of Roman coins; the Missiorum Theodosianus from Spain; and the Stilicho diptych (see below).
Stilicho diptych © SuperStock
You will see that the soldiers depicted wear leggings or hose, with a tunic on their upper half, and boots over their feet. The tunic may be elaborately decorated with embroidered panels or bands; in the case of Stilicho, his entire tunic bears elaborate decoration. A belt is worn around the waist, cinching (securing) the tunic. In addition, the soldiers also wear cloaks, clasped at the shoulder with a brooch – typically a crossbow brooch (see Steps 2.16 and 3.18). And some of the soldiers, notably on the missiorum, are wearing torcs.
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