The Roman Legions were arguably the most formidable and successful military force of the ancient world. In this article, we’ll examine the legionnaire’s weapons and training from the Late Empire period and see how they reflect on the legion’s legendary reputation.
Much of this article is drawn from the late 4th century “Epitoma Rei Militaris” of Vegetius, although a few qualifying remarks must be made.
First, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus was not known as an historian. Nor was he ever a soldier. In fact, apart from Dei Rei Militaris, his only other surviving work is a treatise on veterinary medicine, “Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae.” However, his book on the training, tactics and organization of the Roman army is one of the only such treatises to survive and is by far the most comprehensive. Furthermore, archeological evidence and surviving descriptions of battles lend his work credibility.
First, some brief comment on the Legion of the day. A legion was a military formation containing roughly 5500 men divided into 10 cohorts, the first containing about 800 men, with the rest numbering 500, plus a small 120 person cavalry company used as dispatch riders and scouts. By 68 AD there were a total of 68 legions ranging from Lincoln, England to Alexandria, Egypt. A legion was commanded by a Legatus and a host of other officers such as the Praefectus Castrorum, Tribunus Laticlavius and Augusticlavii, Primus Pilus, Aquilifer, Centurions, etc, whose rank and function could and has filled books but not this article.
First, the armour. During this period, chain mail had been abandoned in favour of articulated plate known as Lorica Segmentata. This consisted of around 32 individual pieces fitting over and under one another and held together by strap and buckle but mainly metal hook and eye. Most of our knowledge of this style comes from two complete suits excavated in Corbridge, England on Hadrian’s Wall in 1964. These suits are also plainly depicted on Trajan’s Column. The helmet evolved from a simple “jockey’s cap” to a style known as the Monteforino which featured a small brim to prevent slide-downs into the face, an extended protection for the back of the neck eventually terminating in a fan-like plate and full cheek-pieces to which were attached the chin strap.
There was also a curtain-like series of leather straps, 4 to 8 in number, studded with small metal plates, which hung from the centre of a belt to depend to just below the groin. Since these didn’t protect the thighs and could easily admit a thrust, some scholars believe this accoutrement to have been solely decorative. For my own part, I see almost no protective value inherent in it.
The shield or “scutum” was originally oval shaped but during the late Empire had evolved to become rectangular with a slightly more pronounced curve. Only one has ever been found – a 3rd century example from the Dura Europos dig in Syria. Its construction appears to have been three layers of thin wood, each about 2 millimeters thick, glued together with grains opposing as in plywood. The back was strengthened with a wooden frame and the whole encased in leather. The edges were further reinforced with rawhide strips or, on occasion, bronze and the front covered with linen which was painted. A central hole covered with a metal boss provided protection for a central grip. The scutum was held with the knuckles facing down.
Now, the weapons: The Gladius’ name is thought to be derived from the Celtic “Kladimos” which simply means “sword.” It evolved through four forms. The first was the Gladius Hispaniensis or Hispanicus whose design is believed to have originated in the La Tene and Hallstatt cultures of 8 – 6 BC. This model had the longest blade which was leaf-shaped, and was also the heaviest.
Next, we have the Mainz whose blade featured a tapered waist, followed by the Fulham which had a narrower blade than its predecessor and introduced a distinctly triangular tip, and finally the Pomeianus. Personally, I can see no substantive design difference in this last model to its predecessor so I am going to make the unsubstantiated assumption that someone renamed it to suck up to the emperor.
The gladius varied in both weight and length. Weights ranged from 1.5 to 2.2 pounds, the overall length ranging from 24 to 33 inches with a blade length of between 1.48 to 2.23 feet and averaging 2 to 2.8 inches in width.
Since the gladius was worn on a cross-strap on your right hip, it was drawn by grasping it with your thumb facing down, applying downward pressure to keep the scabbard stationary and pulling downwards and forward.
As for its use, let’s refer to Vegetius:
“They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword.”
Does this imply that the gladius was never used to cut? Not at all. Vegetius documents the fact that cutting with the sword was integral to a legionnaire’s training. And slashing is vividly described in Livy’s account of the Macedonian Wars. (collectively, 4 wars from 214 to 148 BC)
So knowing this, let’s extrapolate technique based on the physical realities we know and can reproduce. The Romans fought in a shield wall where your shield overlapped the shield of the man on your right and, of course, your shield was overlapped by the man on your left. You would be carrying the scutum closely so that it could easily be braced by your upper arm and shoulder. From this position it would be fairly easy to execute quick, powerful thrusts over the top of the shield. Speed would be necessary if only for self-protection since the legionnaire wore no arm armour and the forearm contains two rather important arteries.
To cut to your opponent’s head or neck from this position would require you to reach over your shield, cutting in pronation to your foe’s right side or flipping the hand into supination to cut to his left, probably not allowing your pommel to travel substantially past the left side of your face. Needless to say, your opponent would have had to be virtually shield to shield with you in order not to significantly expose your arm. It would also not do to make broad moves to execute a cut since you could quite possibly hit your right or left shield-mates. This would imply that these cuts were delivered predominately from the elbow and wrist.
These cuts and thrusts could be delivered without moving your shield. However, to thrust to the center of the body (presuming the enemy was shield-less) would require that you rotate your shield forward and outward slightly, making a quick thrust and returning your shield to overlapping contact with the man on your right – similarly if you were to make a cut at your opponent’s forward leg if he’d allowed it to drift ahead of the lower edge of his shield.
There was another design of sword, the Spatha. This was most likely introduced by foreign troopers and in the 1st century slowly began to replace the gladius where its superior reach was favoured, especially amongst the front ranks. It was also used by cavalry since, not surprisingly, a longer blade was necessary to reach a foot soldier, even bearing in mind that the horses were not as tall as our modern breeds.
The legionnaire also often carried a dagger known as the Pugio which was shaped essentially like a gladius, and was from 9.5 to 11 inches in length. However, by the 1st century, it appears to have fallen out of favour. Not one is to be found on Trajan’s Column.
Now for the spear or Pilum. We have several surviving examples of pila, the best from the Oberraden dig in northern Germany which actually included part of the wooden shaft. It was between 6 to 7 feet in overall length with a soft iron shaft of around 24 inches, terminating in a triangular point. These latter features had several advantages. First, its point made it capable of penetrating a shield. Secondly, the long iron shaft made it impossible to cut the weapon free of your shield since the possibility of the spear getting stuck in your shield was very high. Soft iron was used purposely so that the shaft would bend on impact, thus rendering it useless to retrieve and throw back. An enemy soldier’s movement would definitely be impeded by having to drag a 7-foot spear around on your shield, especially since stepping on the pilum’s end would pull your shield down, exposing your head and upper torso. Very inconvenient indeed.
The pilum had become lighter over the centuries and in the 1st century, a heavier version was introduced which possessed a substantial lead ball weight at the base of the shank where it joined the wooden shaft. Unfortunately we only infer this design from images such as is found on the Cancelleria relief.
Certain legionnaires also carried missile weapons. Again, let’s hear Vegetius’ description:
“The exercise of the loaded javelins, called martiobarbul, must not be omitted. We formerly had two legions legions in Illyricum consisting of six thousand men each, which from their extraordinary dexterity and skill in the use of these weapons were distinguished by the same appellation. … Every soldier carries five of these javelins in the hollow of his shield. And thus the legionary soldiers seem to supply the p[lace of archers, for they wound both the men and horses of the enemy before they come within reach of the common missile weapons.”
These weapons were referred to as Plumbata and resembled nothing so much as lawn darts for those with anger-management issues.
Now here’s something most people probably don’t know. The legionnaire was also trained with the sling.
“Recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hand and sling… Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armour, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without the loss of blood. … There is a greater reason for instructing all troops, without exception, in this exercise, as the sling cannot be reckoned any encumbrance, and often is of the greatest service, especially when they are obliged to engage in stony places, to defend a mountain or an eminence, or to repulse an enemy at the attack of a castle or city.”
The legionnaire was also trained to swim and to march in perfect rank using two different lengths of step: the “common” military step which allowed the legion to march up to 24 miles in 5 hours, and the “full” military step which added a mile to the former in the same period. Incidentally, our word for “mile” comes from the Latin “miles” (mee-lays) which means one thousand – a mile being a thousand paces of the legionnaire.
The legionnaire was also drilled in the “evolutions” – marching in single file, then creating a double rank, then a rank four deep, and also to form a triangular wedge and the testudo. This latter formation, meaning “tortoise,” was a square of soldiers with shields interlocked on all four sides and those behind the front ranks presenting their shields overlapping above their heads, thus creating a five-sided box. It was recorded that small testudo formations (presumably with the men kneeling) were actually capable of being run over by a chariot.
All this marching was to a purpose. Roman battle formations absolutely depended on each man keeping precise rank with his fellows on either side, front and back. There were also drills to allow a person to leave the front rank and be replaced by the man behind in a manner that didn’t create a temporary gap in the shield wall. It was common practice (circumstances permitting) that a soldier have 20 minutes in the rear rank for every 15 minutes in the front rank. Thus, the enemy constantly faced fresh opponents.
Soldiers also performed route marches with 60 pound packs and learned to vault onto a horse from either side in full battle gear.
And when not fighting or maintaining the Pax Romana, they built roads – almost 250,000 miles’ worth throughout the empire, some of which are still useable today.
And so ends a short insight into the smallest but most indispensable link in the military machine that created and sustained one of the greatest empires in civilization.