Video aptly presents the arms, armor and equipment of the ‘quintessential’ Roman legionary

video-arms-armor-roman-legionaryCredit: BurenErdene

An integral part of the ancient Roman war machine, the Roman legionaries played their crucial military role from the ascendant Roman Republic days of 3rd century BC to the nadir period of the Roman Empire in 4th century AD. And while popular history might portray them as soldiers with an aura of invincibility, there was obviously a more ‘practical’ side to the ancient Roman legionary. In essence, as opposed to some otherworldly martial skills, it was the combination of discipline, training and equipment that set apart a legionary from most of his ancient adversaries. Pertaining to the latter scope, Phalera Filmworks had created a nifty short video that aptly presents most of the generalized arms, armor and equipment of the ‘quintessential’ Roman legionary from the Roman Empire.


And while the video covers (much of) the panoply and accouterments of the Roman legionary, as we fleetingly mentioned before, there was more to the fighting ambit of a Roman infantry soldier beyond his equipment. To that end, here are some of the ‘facts’ you should know about the ancient Roman legionary from the early to the late epoch of the Roman Empire.

1) The rigorous training –


The green recruits who were successfully enlisted as legionaries had to go through a training period of 4 months. During this training ambit, each soldier was given the unenviable task of marching 29 km (18 miles) in five hours with regular steps, and then 35 km (21.7 miles) in five hours with faster steps – all the while carrying a backpack that weighed 45 lbs (20.5 kg). This weight was intentionally allotted for increasing the endurance level of a legionary, and thus added to the overall weight of the panoply worn by the soldiers in their full gear (the weight of the lorica segmentata armor alone might have gone beyond 20 lbs). As expected, the ‘slowpokes’ were severely beaten by centurions and officers with their staffs. Interestingly enough, many of the similar ‘regimens’ are preserved through our modern military culture – with elite forces of some countries trained via the rigorous boot camp methods.

In any case, after the strenuous marching scope was perfected by the legionaries, they were then drilled in battlefield maneuvers (including the hollow square, wedge and the famed testudo formations) and signalling. Finally, they were trained in weapons handling and in some cases also swimming. Interestingly, the faux swords and shields used in practices were made of wood and wicker, but they weighed twice the mass of their actual counterparts – so as to acclimatize the legionary with fatigue and weariness that could happen at the heat of the battle. In consideration of this incredibly rigorous ambit, the words of Vegetius ring true –

We see no explanation of the conquest of the word by Roman people than their military training, camp discipline and practice in warfare.

2) Bonding when cooking –


Beyond discipline and training, one of the crucial reasons for the effectiveness of a legionary was directly related to his sense of fraternity within a century (made of 80 men). On a deeper level, a century (centuria) was further divided into ten contubernium (a ‘tent group’, each consisting of eight members). Such classifications basically led to an behavioral aspect of comradeship among the tent group who fought, dined and rested together in their military careers spanning over decades. This sense of identification often translated to high morale and protectiveness on the part of the legionaries when fighting in an actual battleground.

Interestingly, the bonding exercises were not just limited to the contubernium. The Roman army also had a system of rontubernium, which basically entailed a mess group. These grouped soldiers were expected to cook their own meals and eat them together (while the cost of food was deducted from their salaries). Simply put, the absence of mess halls and catering services rather solidified the bond between the legionaries who had to depend on each other even for peaceful meals.

3) The ‘other’ legionaries –


A legionary was only considered as a veteran after he had served for 16 years in the army. In the 1st century AD, even after such a long period of service, the soldier was not expected to ‘retire’ from his legion. Instead the veteran was reinstated to a special unit of vexillum veteranorum for four more years of service. Typically consisting of 500 to 600 men, the unit had its own administrative branch with different officers. It was however attached to the original legion, but at times were deployed independently. The latter case is evident from their separate garrison at the town of Thala, with this particular vexillum veteranorum being derived from legio III Augusta in 20 AD. Unsurprisingly, the veterans with their years of experience were highly successful against the onslaught of Tacfarinas and his Numidian forces.

Other than vexillum veteranorum, there were also slaves (or calones) that could be attached to a legion. Though unlike the veterans, they were governed as a part of the legion, with 120 men attached to each cohort of 480 soldiers. So basically, a single legion (generally comprising ten cohorts) could be accompanied by around 1,200 slaves; and these men were trained for specific tasks. During times of emergency, they were even armed with weapons to defend their camps.

And finally, the soldiers who truly made a Roman military unit self-sufficient were the immunes, a group of highly trained specialists attached to each legion. Ranging from doctors, engineers to architects, these men were exempt from the hard labor duties of the rank-and-file soldiers, while also earning more than them.

4) The emergence of elite light infantry –


Illustration by Angus Mcbride.

While the video demonstrates the ‘heavy’ lorica armor of the legionary (which also sometimes comprised mail instead of plates), the 3rd century AD evolution of the Roman military brought unique army developments like smaller detachments and mobile field armies. All with them, the Roman by now also depended on specialized troops who operated within the centuries-old parameters of a legion. One of these elite soldier types was known as the lanciarii. Mostly used during the Parthian Wars of Caracalla and Severus Alexander (though there are earlier mentions of them), these legionaries were possibly armed with lancea subarmales that entailed smaller throwing javelins. Given these type of weapons, it can be hypothesized that the lanciarii fought as dedicated skirmishers who proceeded before the ‘heavy’ legionaries (armed with sword and conventional pila). In essence, they performed the task of flexible lightly-armed infantrymen who could deftly reorganize and counter the agile horse-archers and cavalry of the Parthians – as can be deduced from Herodian’s account of the Battle of Nisbis in 217 AD.

Now of course, bearing the brunt of skirmishing and fighting, while also keeping up their dynamic formations in the battlefield, must have required expert levels of skill and experience on the part of the lanciarii. Such credentials allude to their elite status within the ranks of the Imperial Roman legions (especially legio II Parthica), thus harking back to the promachoi ‘champions’ of the Mycenaean Greek military during Bronze Age.

5) The ‘overlooked’ weapon –


Image courtesy of Fectio – Dutch Roman re-enactors.

Since part of the video deals with the arms of the Roman legionary, the late Roman period also brought forth some unique weaponry. One of the curious ones among them pertains to the plumbata (also called martiobarbuli). Etymologically relating to plumbum or lead, the weapon was essentially crafted as a throwing dart with lead-weights (at the anterior part), while the head part was probably made of iron. These close sections ultimately gave way to a wooden shaft with fletching. The latter mentioned modification allowed the ancient Roman soldier to throw the dart (which often went beyond 30 cm of length) in a streamlined manner, either over hand or under hand.

This is how martiobarbuli (roughly translated to “little barbs of Mars”) had been described by Vegetius in his De Re Militari, circa late 4th century AD-

The exercise of the loaded javelins, called martiobarbuli, must not be omitted. We formerly had two legions in lllyricum, 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. They supported for a long time the weight of all the wars and distinguished themselves so remarkably that the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian on their accession honored them with the titles of Jovian and Herculean and preferred them before all the other legions. Every soldier carries five of these javelins in the hollow of his shield. And thus the legionary soldiers seem to supply the place of archers, for they wound both the men and horses of the enemy before they come within reach of the common missile weapons.

An anonymous treatise titled De Rebus Bellicis, also from the late 4th century AD, describes the use of spiked plumbatae (plumbata tribolata); though archaeological evidences have still not been able to confirm its existence. And interestingly enough, martiobarbuli has also been described as a part of the arsenal of the Eastern Roman Empire, with its mention in the Strategicon, written by (late) 6th century emperor Maurice.

Video Source: Marc Sanders (YouTube) / Featured Image Credit: BurenErdene (DeviantArt)

Article Sources: / UNRV /Ancient Encyclopedia / V-Roma

Book References:  The Roman Army from Caesar to Trajan (By Michael Simkins) / Imperial Roman Legionary AD 161-284 (By Ross Cowan)

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