Roman military personal equipment

Roman military personal equipment

Roman military personal equipment was produced in large numbers to established patterns and used in an established way. These standard patterns and uses were called the "res militaris" or "disciplina". Its regular practice during the Roman Republic and Roman Empire led to military excellence and victory. The general word for army became "exercitus", "exercise."

According to Hugh Elton, Roman equipment (especially armor) gave them "a distinct advantage over their barbarian enemies." [Elton, Hugh, 1996, "Warfare in Roman Europe, AD 350-425", p. 110] According to Luttwak, who studied Roman strategy more than Roman tactics, Roman equipment was not of a better quality than that used by the majority of its adversaries. [In Luttwack, E., "The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire", JHUP, 1979, Luttwack states that "Roman weapons, far from being universally more advanced, were frequently inferior to those used by... enemies]

The Romans were known for their borrowing of good weapons from their enemies. Initially they used Greek and Etruscan weapons. On encountering the Celts they adopted Celtic equipment. To defeat the Carthaginians they constructed an entire fleet de novo based on the Carthaginian model. Once a weapon was adopted it became standard. The standard weapons varied somewhat during Rome's long history, but the equipment and its use were never individual.

Overview of infantry

Vegetius, 4th century A.D. author of De Re Militari, describes the equipment he believed had been used by heavy and light infantry earlier in the empire. The names of some weapons have been changed from the Latin to the Greek forms and Greek names have been preferred, for unknown reasons, perhaps because the center of Roman military power had shifted from Rome to Constantinople. Vegetius says in translation [Book 2 Chapter 15. The nominative singular of the weapon has been placed in parentheses.] :

The infantry ("armatura") was heavy, because they had helmets ("cassis"), coats of mail ("catafracta"), greaves ("ocrea"), shields ("scutum"), larger swords ("gladius maior"), which they call broadswords ("spatha"), and some smaller, which they name half-broadswords ("semispathium"), five weighted darts ("plumbata") placed in the shields, which they hurl at the beginning of the assault, then double throwables, a larger one with an iron point of nine ounces and a stock of five and one-half feet, which was called a "pilum", but now is called a speculum, in the use of which the soldiers were especially practiced, and with skill and courage could penetrate the shields of the infantry and the mail of the cavalry. The other smaller had five ounces of iron and a stock of three and one-half feet, and was called a "vericulum" but now is a "verutum". The first line, of "hastati", and the second, of "principes", were composed of such arms. Behind them were the bearers ("ferentarius") and the light infantry, whom now we say are the supporters and the infantry, shield-bearers ("scutum") with darts ("plumbata"), swords ("gladius") and missiles, armed just as are nearly all soldiers today. There were likewise bowmen ("sagittarius") with helmet ("cassis"), coat of mail ("catafracta"), sword ("gladius"), arrows ("sagitta") and bow ("arcus"). There were slingers ("funditor") who slung stones ("lapis") in slings ("funda") or cudgel-throwers ("fustibalus"). There were artillery-men ("tragularius"), who shot arrows from the "manuballista" and the "arcuballista".

In the late Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire, most Roman infantry used swords ("gladii") and specialized throwing spears ("pila") as their main weapons. In the middle and Late Roman Empire, most Roman infantry used thrusting spears as their main weapons. [Stephenson, I.P., 2001, "Roman Infantry Equipment: The Later Empire", p. 56]

Personal weapons


A "pugio" was a small dagger used by Roman soldiers. It was probably a sidearm. Like other items of legionary equipment, the dagger underwent some changes during the 1st century. Generally, it had a large, leaf-shaped blade 18 to 28 cm long and 5 cm or more in width. A raised midrib ran the length of each side, either simply standing out from the face or defined by grooves on either side. The tang was wide and flat initially, and the grip was riveted through it, as well as through the shoulders of the blade.

Around 50, a rod tang was introduced, and the hilt was no longer riveted through the shoulders of the blade. This in itself caused no great change to the pugio's appearance, but some of these later blades were narrower (under 3.5 cm wide), and/or had little or no waisting, and/or had reduced or vestigial midribs.

Throughout the period the outline of the hilt remained approximately the same. It was made with two layers of horn or wood sandwiching the tang, each overlaid with a thin metal plate. Occasionally the hilt was decorated with engraving or inlay. Note that the hilt is 10-12 cm long overall and that the grip is quite narrow; it will always seem to be too small.


Gladius became the general Latin word for "sword". In the Roman Republic it referred (and refers today) specifically to the short sword, 60 cm (24 inches) long, used by Roman legionaries from the 3rd century BC. Several different designs came to be used; among collectors and historical reenactors, the three primary kinds are known as the Mainz gladius, the Fulham gladius, and the Pompeii gladius (these names refer to where or how the canonical example was found). More recent archeological finds have uncovered an earlier version, the "gladius hispaniensis" ("Spanish sword").


A "spatha" could be any sword (in late Latin) but most often one of the longer swords characteristic of the middle and late Roman Empire. In the 1st Century, Roman Cavalry started using these longer swords, and in the 4th Century, Roman infantry also switched, mostly to spears, but some to longer swords. [Stephenson, I.P., 2001, "Roman Infantry Equipment: The Later Empire", Tempus, pp. 58 & 60-75.] [M.C. Bishop & J.C.N. Coulston, 2006, "Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome", Oxbow Books, pp. 82-83, 130, 154-157 & 202.]

Shorter weapons (short swords and possibly sometimes daggers) were known as "semispathae" or half-swords. A large 3rd-Century hoard from Künzing included one triangular-bladed shortsword and several narrow-bladed shortswords (with 23-39 cm blades). Bishop & Coulston suggest that some or all were made from broken "spathae". [Stephenson, I.P., 2001, "Roman Infantry Equipment: The Later Empire", Tempus, p. 79.] [M.C. Bishop & J.C.N. Coulston, 2006, "Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome", Oxbow Books, p. 157.]

Other Bladed Weapon Types

In the 1st Century, Sarmatian horsemen started using short narrow-bladed swords with distinctive rings on their pommels. In the 2nd Century, Roman soldiers copied this design. [M.C. Bishop & J.C.N. Coulston, 2006, "Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome", Oxbow Books, pp. 132-134.]

pears & Javelins


"Hasta" is a Latin word meaning a thrusting spear. "Hastae" were carried by early Roman Legionaries, in particular they were carried by and gave their name to those Roman soldiers known as Hastati. However, during Republican times, the hastati were re-armed with pila and gladii and only the Triarii still used "hastae".

A hasta was about six feet in length with a shaft generally made from ash, the head was of iron.


A "contus" could be an infantry pike or a cavalry lance. These were long, heavy, two-handed weapons. The Roman infantry did not use "conti" but some of their opponents did. Starting in the 2nd Century BC, certain Roman cavalry units carried "conti" as their main weapons. [M.C. Bishop & J.C.N. Coulston, 2006, "Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome", Oxbow Books, p. 130.]


Although Romans often used the word "pila" to refer to all thrown javelins, the term "pilum" also means specifically the heavy Roman throwing spear of the legions. Lighter, shorter javelins existed, such as those used by the velites and the early legions. They specifically were called veruti.


The "pilum" (plural "pila") was a heavy javelin commonly used by the Roman army in ancient times. It was generally about two meters long overall, consisting of an iron shank about 7 mm in diameter and 60 cm long with pyramidal head. The iron shank may be socketed or more usually widens to a flat tang, this was secured to a wooden shaft. A pilum usually weighed between two and four kilograms, with the versions produced during the Empire being a bit lighter.

Pila were designed to penetrate both shield and armour, wounding the wearer, but if they simply stuck in a shield they could not easily be removed. The iron shank would bend upon impact, weighing down the enemy's shield and also preventing the pilum from being immediately re-used.


The "sagittarius" was armed with the bow ("arcus"), firing an arrow ("sagitta") with a wooden shaft and iron head. The normal weapon of Roman archers was the classic composite bow [Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome (Paperback). M.C. Bishop, J.C. Coulston. Oxbow Books 2005. ISBN-10: 1842171593 ISBN-13: 978-1842171592] , made of horn, wood, and sinew held together with hide glue. However, Vegetius recommends training recruits "arcubus ligneis", with wooden bows. The reinforcing laths for the composite bows are found throughout the empire.


Plumbatae or mattiobarbuli were lead-weighted darts carried by the Late Roman infantry.

Torso armour

Lorica segmentata

The "lorica segmentata" was a type of armour primarily used in the Roman Empire, but the Latin name was first used in the 16th century (the ancient form is unknown). The armour itself consist of broad ferrous (iron, but steel in modern recreations) strips ('girth hoops') fastened to internal leather straps. The strips were arranged horizontally on the body, overlapping downwards, and they surrounded the torso in two halves, being fastened at the front and back by means of brass hooks, which were joined by leather laces. The upper body and shoulders were protected by additional strips ('shoulder guards') and breast- and backplates. The form of the armour allowed it to be stored very compactly, since it was possible to separate it into four sections. During the time of its use, it was modified several times, the currently recognised types being the Kalkriese ("c." 20 BC to 50), Corbridge ("c." 40 to 120), and Newstead ("c." 120 to possibly the early 4th-Century) types. There is also a little-known fourth type, known only from a statue found at Alba Julia in Romania, where there appears to have been a hybrid form, the shoulders being protected by scale armour and the torso hoops being fewer in number and deeper.

The earliest evidence of the lorica segmentata being worn is around 9 BC (Dangstetten), and the armor was evidently quite common in service until the 2nd century AD, judging from the number of finds throughout this period (over 100 sites are known, many of them in Britain). However, even during the 2nd century AD, the segmentata never replaced the lorica hamata - thus the hamata ring-mail was still standard issue for both heavy infantry and auxiliaries alike. Roman soldiers, however, bought their own gear and therefore a group of men would not present the sort of 'uniform' appearance we are used to today. The last recorded use of this armour seems to have been for the last quarter of the 3rd century AD (Leon, Spain).

There are two opinions as to who used this form of armour. One is that only legionaries (heavy infantry of the Roman Legions) and Praetorians were issued with the lorica segmentata. Auxiliary forces would more commonly wear the Lorica hamata which is mail (frequently, and erroneously, called chainmail) or Lorica squamata (scale armour). The second viewpoint is that both legionaries and auxiliary soldiers used the segmentata armour and this latter view is supported, to some degree, by archeological findings. The Lorica segmentata offered greater protection than the Lorica hamata for about half of the weight, but was also more difficult to produce and repair. The expenses attributed to the segmentata may account for why the Romans ceased its production, and reverted back to using only ring-mail after the 3rd-4th century. Alternatively, all forms of armour may have fallen into disuse as the need for heavy infantry waned in favour of the speed of mounted troops.

Lorica hamata

The "Lorica hamata" is a type of chain mail armour used during the Roman Republic continuing throughout the Roman Empire as a standard-issue armour for the primary heavy infantry legionaries and secondary troops (Auxilia). They were mostly manufactured out of iron, sometimes bronze. The rings were linked together, alternating closed washer-like rings with riveted rings. This produced a very flexible, reliable and strong armour. Each ring had an inside diameter of between 7 and 5 mm, and an outside diameter of about 9-7 mm. The shoulders of the "Lorica hamata" had flaps that were similar to those of the Greek 'Linothorax'; they ran from about mid-back to the front of the torso, and were connected by brass or iron hooks which connected to studs riveted through the ends of the flaps. Several thousand rings would have gone into one Lorica Hamata.

The knowledge of the manufacture of mail may have come from the Celts. There were several versions of this type of armour, specialized for different military duties such as skirmishers, cavalry and spearmen. Chainmail for heavy infantry legionaries were usually of higher quality than those issued to auxiliaries - with elements such as extra layers of mail near the shoulders and vital organs.

Although labor-intensive to manufacture, it is thought that, with good maintenance, they could be continually used for several decades. Its utility was such that the later appearance of the famous Lorica Segmentata -- which afforded greater protection for a third of the weight -- never led to the disappearance of the ubiquitous mail, and in fact the army of the late Empire reverted to the Lorica Hamata once the Segmentata had fallen out of fashion.

Lorica squamata

The "Lorica squamata" is a type of scale armour used during the Republic and at later periods. It was made from small metal scales sewn to a fabric backing. It is typically seen on depictions of standard bearers, musicians, centurions, cavalry troops, and even auxiliary infantry, but could be worn by regular legionaries as well. A shirt of scale armour was shaped in the same way as a lorica hamata, mid-thigh length with the shoulder doublings or cape.

The individual scales ("squamae") were either iron or bronze, or even alternating metals on the same shirt. They could be tinned as well, one surviving fragment showing bronze scales that were alternately tinned and plain. The metal was generally not very thick, 0.5 mm to 0.8 mm (0.02 to 0.032 in) perhaps being a common range. Since the scales overlapped in every direction, however, the multiple layers gave good protection. The size ranged from as small as 6 mm (0.25 in) wide by 1.2 cm tall up to about 5 cm (2 in) wide by 8 cm (3 in) tall, with the most common sizes being roughly 1.25 by 2.5 cm (1.5 to 1 in). Many have rounded bottoms, while others are pointed or have flat bottoms with the corners clipped off at an angle. The scales could be flat, or slightly domed, or have a raised midrib or edge. All the scales in a shirt would generally be of the same size; however, scales from different shirts may vary significantly.

The scales were wired together in horizontal rows that were then laced or sewn to the backing. Therefore, each scale had from four to 12 holes: two or more at each side for wiring to the next in the row, one or two at the top for fastening to the backing, and sometimes one or two at the bottom to secure the scales to the backing or to each other.

It is possible that the shirt could be opened either at the back or down one side so that it was easier to put on, the opening being closed by ties. Much has been written about scale armour’s supposed vulnerability to an upward thrust, but this is probably greatly exaggerated.

No examples of an entire lorica squamata have been found, but there have been several archaeological finds of fragments of such shirts and individual scales are quite common finds - even in non-military contexts.


Light infantry, especially in the early Republic, were entirely unarmoured. If they wore any armour at all over their tunic, it would likely have consisted solely of stiff leather. This was both to allow swifter movement for light troops and also as a matter of cost.



"Scutum" is the Latin word for shield, although it has in modern times come to be associated with the standard semi-cylindrical type carried by Roman legionaries. The Republican curved body shield was oval -- as is shown by the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in Rome, the Aemilius Paullus monument at Delphi, or an actual example found at Kasr el-Harit in Egypt -- but gradually evolved into a rectangular (or sub-rectangular) shape during the early imperial period.

Rectangular "scuta" (plural) - sometimes convex, sometimes flat [Santosuosso, A., "Soldiers, Emperors and Civilians in the Roman Empire", Westview, 2001, p.130] - were constructed largely of strips of overlapping bentwood (possibly set in place by steaming over a curved form (in much the same way as a modern plywood chair is made) although no direct evidence survives to prove this) covered with leather. This meant the shield was strong and yet light enough (about 5.5 kg, or 7.5 kg with a reinforced boss [Santosuosso, A., "Soldiers, Emperors and Civilians in the Roman Empire", Westview, 2001, p.131] ) to be carried over long distances. The best surviving example, from Dura-Europos in Syria, was 1.06 m (48 in) in height, a chord of 66 cm (26 in), with a distance around the curve of 86 cm (34 in), and a thickness of 5 mm to 6 mm. The curved shape of the shield allowed it to absorb (and deal) heavy blows, while the sides sloped away from the attacker, allowing arrows and enemy blows to glance off without transmitting the full force of the impact to the legionary sheltering behind it. The boss in the centre of the shield (the "umbo"), constructed either from copper alloy (brass or bronze) or iron, was itself used offensively, being heavy and dense enough to stun or wind an opponent (easing the legionary's subsequent strike with his "gladius"). Legionaries would typically advance alternately with the "scutum" and then (with the "scutum" partially raised, crowding and blocking the opponent) with the "gladius". The edges of the shield were also bound in brass or rawhide, to reinforce and protect them, and may also have been used offensively.

The shape of the "scutum" allowed packed formations of legionaries to overlap their shields to provide an effective barrier against missiles. The most novel (and specialised, for it afforded negligible protection against other attacks) use was the "testudo" (Latin for "tortoise"), which added legionaries holding shields from above to protect against descending missiles (such as arrows or objects thrown by defenders on walls).


A parma was a type of oval shield used by Roman army, especially during the later period of Imperial history. It was used mainly by auxiliary infantry and cavalry, the legionaries preferring the heavier but more protective scutum, during earlier periods. It is a yard across and has iron in its frame making it a very effective piece of armor.


A light shield used by Roman auxiliares.


Roman helmets, known as "galea" or "cassis", varied greatly in form. One of the earliest types was the Montefortino helmet used by the Republic armies up to the first century BC. This was replaced directly by the Coolus helmet, which "raised the neck peak to eye level and set a sturdy frontal peak to the brow of the helmet" [Santosuosso, A., "Soldiers, Emperors and Civilians in the Roman Empire", Westview, 2001, p.131] .


*Tunic: basic garment worn under the armour by all soldiers in the Republic and early Empire. Normally made of wool. Tunics originally consisted simply of a long piece of rectangular cloth sewed to an identical piece, with holes for the arms and head left unsewn. Later, it became fashionable for tunics to be produced with sleeves, and worn with braccae.

*Focale: scarf worn by Roman legionaries to protect the neck from chafing caused by constant contact with the soldier's armor (typically lorica hamata or lorica segmentata) and helmet.

*Balteus (sword belt): sword belt.

*Braccae: woolen trousers.

*Cloak: two types of cloaks were used, the sagum and the paenula. Both were made from wool, which insulated and also contained natural oil to repel water. It was fastened by fibulae. The paenula was hooded in colder climates.

*Caliga: military boots worn by Roman legionariers and auxiliaries throughout the history of the Roman Republic and Empire. The boots were made from leather and laced up the center of the foot and onto the top of the ankle. Iron hobnails were hammered into the sole.


Military pack carried by legionaries. The pack included a number of items suspended from a furca or carrying pole. Items carried in the pack include:

*Loculus: a leather satchel.

*Water skin: Roman camps would typically be built over streams or similar to supply water both for drinking and also to provide running water for the communal latrines, but each soldier would have to carry his water for the day's march between each camp on him in a waterskin.

*Food: Each legionary would carry some of his food. Although a Roman army on the move would typically have a baggage train of mules or similar to carry supplies such as food, after the Marian reforms legionaries were required to carry about 15 days worth of basic food supplies with them. Most basic foot soldiers had to carry the food in a sarcina or pack

*Cooking equipment: Including a patera (mess tin), cooking pot and skewer. A patera was a broad, shallow dish used for drinking, primarily in a ritual context such as a libation.

*Entrenching tools: Carried by legionaries to construct fortifications and dig latrines etc. Each legionary would typically carry either a shovel or dolabra (mattock) for digging, a turf cutting tool or a wicker basket for hauling earth.

*Sudis: Stakes for construction of camps.



The ballista was a powerful ancient crossbow, although employing several loops of twisted skeins to power it, it used torsion (instead of a prod). Early versions ejected heavy darts or spherical stone projectiles of various sizes. It developed into a smaller sniper weapon, the Scorpio.


A catapult is any siege engine which uses an arm to hurl a projectile a great distance, though the term is generally understood to mean medieval siege weapons. Projectiles included both arrows and (later) stones.


A brass instrument used in the ancient Roman army. It was originally designed as a tube measuring some 11 to 12 feet in length, of narrow cylindrical bore, and played by means of a cup-shaped mouthpiece. The tube is bent round upon itself from the mouthpiece to the bell in the shape of a broad C and is strengthened by means of a bar across the curve, which the performer grasps while playing, in order to steady the instrument; the bell curves over his head or shoulder.

The buccina was used for the announcement of night watches and various other purposes in the camp.

The instrument is the ancestor of both the trumpet and the trombone. The German word for trombone, Posaune, is linguistically derived from Buccina.


A "tribulus" (caltrop) is a weapon made up of four (or more) sharp nails or spines arranged in such a manner that one of them always points upward from a stable base (for example, a tetrahedron). Caltrops serve to slow down the advance of horses, war elephants, and human troops. It was said to be particularly effective against the soft feet of camels [cite book|title=The Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 6. (of 7): Parthia| url= | last= Rawlinson| first= George] .

The late Roman writer Vegetius, in his work "De Re Militari", wrote:

:"The scythed chariots used in war by Antiochus and Mithridates at first terrified the Romans, but they afterwards made a jest of them. As a chariot of this sort does not always meet with plain and level ground, the least obstruction stops it. And if one of the horses be either killed or wounded, it falls into the enemy's hands. The Roman soldiers rendered them useless chiefly by the following contrivance: at the instant the engagement began, they strewed the field of battle with caltrops, and the horses that drew the chariots, running full speed on them, were infallibly destroyed. A caltrop is a machine composed of four spikes or points arranged so that in whatever manner it is thrown on the ground, it rests on three and presents the fourth upright." [cite book| url=| title=The Military Institutions of the Romans Book III: Dispositions for Action| first=Vegetius | chapter=ARMED CHARIOTS AND ELEPHANTS]

ee also

*Military of ancient Rome


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