The Roman army was one of the finest and most effective fighting forces in history. The core of the Roman army was formed by the legions, units of up to 5,000 Roman citizens fighting as heavy infantrymen. But while the successes of the Roman army are well known the different weapons and pieces of armor that Roman solider used (especially in the time before 107 BC when the Roman infantry was split into 4 differently armed and armored groups) are less well known.
Roman soldiers wore a loose-fitting, sleeve-less tunic made from wool or linen that ended right above the knee, a belt (cingulum), caligae (heavy-soled hobnailed military sandal boots), and a coat that also functioned as a blanket. After the Marian reforms of 107 BC, Roman legionaries, so-called miles, were uniformly equipped with a shield (scutum), a helmet (galea or cassis), the lorica hamata (shirt of chainmail), two light 1,3 lbs (600 gr) pila (javelins), and a sword (Gladius). Before 107 BC a Roman legion consisted of Velites, Hastati, Principes, and Triarii. Each group formed one line of battle and was equipped with different weapons and armor.
So let`s dive right in and look at the clothing, weapons, and armor that Roman soldiers used before and after the Marian reforms of 107 BC. In case you also want to find out how Roman soldiers fought (and how the Velites, Hastati, Principes, and Triarii interacted with each other during a battle) you might also enjoy my article here.
When it comes to the weapons and armor of Roman soldiers then we can basically differentiate that topic into 3 periods. In the earliest period (the time of the Roman kings) the Roman soldiers were equipped like Greek Hoplites and fought in the phalanx formation which they probably adapted from the Etruscans (who in turn had adapted it from the Greeks). I have already written articles about the Hoplites and the phalanx formation so I will not go into detail about that early period.
Instead, I will focus on the other two periods.
The first, the period between 315 BC and 107 BC was shaped by the division of the Roman heavy infantry into the 3 differently armed and armored groups of Hastati, Principes, and Triarii (as well as the Velites who served as lightly armed skirmishers). Here you can find out more about how these 4 groups fought and how they interacted on the battlefield.
The second period following the Marian reforms of 107 BC was shaped by a more uniform armament of Roman soldiers who were called miles.
So let`s now look at the weapons and armor of Roman soldiers, and find out how it has changed from the first period (315-107 BC) to the second period (107 BC to the 3rd century AD).
But before talking about which type of soldier (Velites, Hastati, Principes, and Triarii) used which weapons I would first like to present each weapon and piece of armor on its own.
The clothing of Roman soldiers
Before talking about the weapons and armor that Roman soldiers used (and how they changed over time) I would like to start with the clothes that Roman soldiers wore. And conveniently for us, the clothing that Roman soldiers wore under their armor or when they didn`t wear armor didn`t really change at all over time.
Each Roman soldier wore a loose-fitting, sleeveless, and shirt-like tunic made from wool or linen that was usually not dyed and ended right above the knee. The clothing was completed by a belt (cingulum), caligae (heavy-soled hobnailed military sandal boots), and a coat that was also used as a blanket when on a campaign.
For more information on the accommodation of Roman soldiers and on what materials they used as mattresses I would like to recommend you my article here.
That clothing was the base level that was worn by Roman soldiers throughout the existence of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. However, in case of climatic necessity items like spats could be added for additional protection against the weather or the cold.
The type of body armor worn above the tunic heavily depended on the type of soldier, at least until the Marian reforms of 107 BC.
And that brings us to the next point, the overview of the weapons and armor used by Roman soldiers.
The weapons and Armor used by Roman soldiers
Before I will go into which weapons and armor were used by the Velites, the Hastati, the Principes, and the Triarii (and after 107 BC by all Roman legionaries) I would first like to present the individual items for better clarity.
And I would like to start with the armor items that Roman soldiers wore right above their tunics: The body armor.
Pectorale, lorica hamata, and lorica segmentata – the body armor of Roman soldiers
Depending on the time period and the type of infantryman (Hastati, Principes, or Triarii) the degree to which a Roman soldier wore body armor differed greatly.
The most basic type of body armor that was only worn by the Hastati (as well as a type of Gladiator called Provocator was the Pectorale.
The Pectorale was a rectangular piece of metal, usually bronze, that covered the chest and was held in place by leather straps that crisscrossed the back. It is assumed that the use of the Pectorale was adapted by the Romans when they fought the Samnites during the Samnite Wars.
While the pectorale was relatively cheap (at least compared to a shirt of chainmail) its protective qualities were definitely inferior to the lorica hamata, the shirt of chainmail.
The lorica hamata was a sleeveless shirt of chainmail made up of up to 30.000 iron (sometimes bronze) rings that weighed up to 22 lbs (10 kg). It had a U-shaped neckline, a second layer of chainmail over the shoulders, wasn`t fitted and covered the torso and the upper half of the thigh. The material of each of the rings was 1-2 mm strong, each ring had a diameter of 5-9 mm.
Roman chainmail like the lorica hamata was made by alternately intertwining die-cut rings without a joint and rings that were closed by riveting or welding the ends of the ring together.
Since the chainmail of the lorica hamata was pretty fine mesh (each ring had a diameter of 5-9 mm) and the ends of the individual rings were riveted or welded together, it offered the Roman soldier excellent protection against cuts and good protection against stabs, hits, and arrows.
However, the Romans didn`t invent chainmail. They claimed to have adapted it from Celtic tribes. Roman soldiers used the lorica hamata (chainmail) from the 3rd century BC until the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. After that, shirts of chainmail (so-called Hauberks) were also used throughout the Middle Ages.
Here you can find out more about the different types of medieval armor and their effectiveness.
As early as 9 BC another type of body armor, the lorica segmentata, which was used until the 2nd century AD was used. Unlike the lorica hamata, the lorica segmentata did not consist of chainmail but overlapping metal strips fashioned into circular bands. The individual strips were fastened to internal leather straps. While the lorica segmentata offered better protection against hits and arrows and was easier to mass-produce it was way harder to repair a lorica segmentata while on a campaign.
The reason for that is simple. If some rings of a lorica hamata (chainmail) opened then a trained blacksmith (like the ones accompanying the Roman armies) just needed a mobile forge and some iron wire with the right strength to repair the chainmail.
The lorica segmentata however consisted of countless different parts like the metal strips, hooks, and so on. That made the lorica segmentata easier to mass-produce since the individual parts could be put together by less well-trained men. However, these parts could not just be built by every blacksmith while on a campaign. So to be able to repair the lorica segmentata spare parts had to be brought with the army.
And while both the lorica hamata and the lorica segmentata were effective pieces of body armor the next item on our list had the duty to prevent the body armor from being put to the final test.
The Scutum – much more than just a shield
Unlike the 3 different types of body armor the Roman shield, the Scutum, did not drastically evolve. Just like the Roman body armor, the Scutum was also not a Roman invention but was adapted from the Samnites during the Samnite Wars.
Aside from its use by Roman soldiers the Scutum was also used by several types of Gladiators. Here you can find out more about the 6 most popular types of Roman gladiators and which 3 of them used the Scutum.
The Scutum weighed 13-22 lbs (6-10 kg), was 3.9 ft (120 cm) high, 2.9-3.2 ft (90-100 cm) wide, and had a cylindrical curvature into which the soldier could lean for better protection. It consisted of 3 layers of glued-together sheets of birch plywood, the outside was covered with leather and linen, and its upper and lower edges were reinforced with bronze fittings.
The Scutum covered the Roman soldier from the knees to his shoulder and allowed the soldier to stab at his enemy from the protection of his shield. Here you can find out more about how Roman legionaries fought.
Speaking of stabbing. That brings us to the sword that was used by Roman soldiers.
The Gladius – the sword of the Roman infantryman
The Gladius was a relatively short sword that was the standard weapon of both Roman legionaries and most Gladiator types. The double-edged, relatively heavy preponderant blade allowed effective cuts and chops while the tapered tip allowed for stabs. Here you can find out more about the characteristics of the Gladius, its weight, and against which body parts it was best used.
Officers like Centurions carried their swords on the right while regular soldiers carried their swords on the left side in a scabbard that consisted of two wooden pieces that were covered with leather and held together by bronze fittings on both ends.
It is not entirely clear whether or not Roman soldiers outside of the officer ranks carried a dagger, the so-called Pugio. At least the dagger is not explicitly mentioned by Polybios who serves as one of the main sources for the Roman military of the Middle Republic.
The reason for that could be the naturalness of Roman soldiers carrying a dagger (Pugio) not only for combat but especially for preparing their meals so Polybios might not have seen a necessity to explicitly mention the Pugio. That however is just my opinion.
Do you want to find out more about the diet of the Roman soldier? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Apart from the Gladius the other major type of weapon that all Roman soldiers (except for the 600 Triarii that every legion had) used was the Pilum.
The Pilum – a javelin that could not be thrown back
While the Gladius is probably the most famous Roman weapon the Pilum, a javelin ideal for breaking up enemy formations, is oftentimes unfairly overlooked.
Before the Marian reforms of 107 BC, every Hastati and every Principes carried two pila (one light and one heavy javelin). After the Marian reforms, every Roman legionary was equipped with two pila that were lighter than the ones used before 107 BC. The pilum is actually the only weapon that changed drastically between the 3rd century BC and the Late Republic, the time of Caius Julius Caesar.
There were light and heavy pila, both roughly 2,2 yds (2 m) long and with a weight of 2,2 lb (1 kg) to 7,7 lbs (3,5 kg). After the Marian reforms of 107 BC, an extra light pilum with a weight of only 1,3 lbs (0,6 kg) was developed. The pilum was used in volleys, one was thrown at a distance of 16 yds (15 m), the second at 8,2 yds (7,5 m).
The Roman pilum consisted of a wooden shaft that was 4,2 ft (1,3 m) long and an iron shank of similar length with a hardened pyramidal tip. The wooden shaft was approximately 1,6 in (4 cm) thick and had a flat tang in which the iron shank could be inserted and fixed with either two nails (after 107 BC) or clamps (before 107 BC).
After the Marian reforms of 107 BC, the weight of the Pilum was reduced to 600 grams (1,3 lbs) which increased its reach to 32 yds (30 m).
The Pilum was used as a javelin. But like any javelin (and also arrows) there is a certain danger that the enemy could pick up the javelin and throw it right back. And the day that you get hit by your own javelin is not a good one. So the Romans created the Pilum in a way that it could not simply be thrown back at the Roman soldiers.
There were two options to build a Pilum in a way that it could not be thrown back at the Roman soldiers. The first way was to only harden the tip but not the iron shank. In that case, the Pilum would bend on impact making it useless. After the battle, a blacksmith could simply straighten out the bent shank. The other way was to fix the iron shank with two nails, one iron, and one wooden nail to the socket in the wooden shaft. In case of impact, the wooden nail broke, and the iron shank wobbled making the Pilum useless until the wooden nail was replaced after the battle.
Both ways had their advantages however it seems like the method that used the wooden nail was a little less reliable. So the Pila that were used in the armies of Caius Julius Caesar all had iron shanks made of soft metal that would bend on impact.
Now one might ask how effective such a Pilum was as a javelin when it was designed to become useless after having hit its target.
The Pilum was highly effective, its relatively high weight gave it a good piercing power. And in case a Pilum pierced a shield the pyramidal tip prevented it from being pulled out of the shield while the iron shank meant that it could not be chopped off. So the man whose shield had been hit now had a bent 1,3-7,7 lbs heavy javelin stuck to his shield which greatly hindered his fighting ability.
Caius Julius Caesar, more on how Roman names worked and why they could be so long here, actually mentioned a battle where the Gallic warriors formed a shield wall to protect themselves from the Roman javelin volleys. But after the volleys, the Pila had penetrated the shields and had pinned them together making them completely useless. Needless to say that a warrior whose shield had a bent, heavy Pilum stuck to it only had the option of throwing his shield away since he could neither pull the Pilum out of his shield nor chop through the Iron shank.
So he now faced a Roman soldier who was protected by his shield from chin to knee while not having a shield himself… That was a bad combination, especially considering the capabilities of the Gladius.
So while the Pilum could kill lighter armored warriors its main strength lay in getting stuck in the opponent’s shield forcing him to throw the shield (that was now hindering his fighting abilities) away and face the heavily armored Roman soldier without a shield.
Because of that effectiveness, it is actually a little bit sad that the pilum is often overlooked even though it was used by almost all Roman soldiers (except for the Triarii).
The Hasta – a thrusting lance only used by the Triarii
Instead, the Triarii would use a thrusting lance, the so-called Hasta, instead of carrying two pila. Here you can find out more about the Hasta (that was originally used by Hoplites) under the paragraph that talks about Greek weapons.
The reason why the Triarii used a thrusting lance instead of javelins did have to do with their function on the battlefield. I go into detail about that in my article here so I will only sum it up briefly.
The Triarii formed one continuous 3 men deep line that functioned as the third and last line of battle. In case the first two lines, the Hastati and the Principes had failed the Triarii were expected to win the battle. But that does not necessarily explain their thrusting lances. Well, one explanation (that has not been proven) would be that the Triarii did not only function as the last line that entered the fighting as a last reserve, but also as a barrier preventing the younger and less experienced men in the first two lines of the battle from fleeing.
That could also explain why the Triarii, unlike the first two lines, formed one continuous line. That together with being equipped with thrusting lances instead of javelins could hint at a secret function of being responsible for stopping the younger, less experienced men in the first two lines of battle from fleeing.
I will talk more about the Triarii (as well as the Hastati and Principes) in a minute. But first, we have to talk about the last missing piece of equipment: The helmet.
The Cassis – the Roman helmet
Since the Scutum protected the Roman soldier from chin to knee and the Roman army faced several enemies that used swords more designed for chops and cuts, the head of a Roman soldier had to be protected by a helmet.
Roman soldiers used a bronze helmet (cassis or galea) that left the face open. On the march, the helmet was carried on a leather belt instead of on the head. For battles and parades, a feathered crest (crista) that was up to 1,6 ft (50 cm) tall and consisted of 3 red or black feathers was added to make the soldier appear bigger and more intimidating.
By the way, crests of horse hair or feathers were also used by Gladiators to make them more impressive. Here you can find out more about the helmets that Gladiators used and the 3 purposes they served.
Shin guards were worn by Roman soldiers during the early Roman kingdom when they still fought as Hoplites but fell out of use during the Early to the Middle Republic. Shin guards did however remain a part of the armor of Roman centurions as a way to make them stand out more.
So there we have the different types of weapons and armor that Roman soldiers used. But which groups of infantrymen used which weapons? And what were the social background and the age of men serving as Hastati, Principes, or Triarii?
Let`s find out!
Velites, Hastati, Principes, and Triarii – the 4 types of Roman infantrymen until 107 BC
Until the Marian reforms in 107 BC, the Roman army was organized in the manipular system. That meant that each legion was formed by four different groups of infantrymen who formed lines and who would engage after each other. For more information on how these different groups of infantrymen interacted on the battlefield (and how the individual Roman soldier fought using the presented equipment) I would like to recommend you my article here.
As a result of the Marian reforms in 107 BC, the differentiation into Hastati, Principes, and Triarii were ended and replaced by the more or less uniformly equipped miles. But more on that in a minute.
Let`s now start out by looking at the Velites.
The Velites – skirmishers fighting in front of the army
Until the Marian reforms in 107 BC, each legion had 1.200 Velites, lightly armed skirmishers. These Velites were the youngest and least-armed Roman citizens fighting in the Roman army.
Their job was to fight in front of the first line made up of the Hastati and disturb the enemy by throwing light javelins at them. For that purpose, each of the Velites carried 7 light javelins and in case they were caught off guard a Gladius. Apart from a small shield, the parma, and a cap made of hardened leather the Velites didn`t wear any body armor.
So as soon as they had thrown their 7 javelins or they were engaged by anything other than hostile skirmishers they retreated through the intervals in the first line of battle and made room for the Hastati.
Apart from skirmishing, the Velites were also highly effective against war elephants. Since the Velites were not operating in formations and their lack of armor made them highly mobile they could approach the war elephants and throw their javelins at them until the elephants turned around and trampled their own troops in an attempt to flee.
Ok, so to sum it up:
Velites were Roman citizens between the age of 17 and 25 who only used the parma, a small shield, and a cap of hardened leather as protection and 7 light javelins (3,6 ft (=110 cm) long) and a Gladius as weapons. They were used as skirmishers but were also effective against war elephants.
By the way. The Hoplomachus, one of the 6 most popular types of Gladiators, also used the Parma as his shield which allowed him greater mobility than the Murmillo (the Gladiator type he usually faced) had. Here you can find out more about the fight between a Hoplomachus and a Murmillo including a video of a reenactment.
After the Velites had done their duty they retreated and left the field to the Hastati.
The Hastati – the first line of battle
The Hastati formed the first line of battle.
Originally they had been members of the poorest recruitable class (serving in the military was tied to a certain degree of wealth until the Marian reforms of 107 BC, more on that here) who could only afford some armor. But at the time of the Middle Republic (3rd and 2nd century BC), the time of Polybios, the Hastati were made up of the least armored and (at least among the men fighting as somewhat heavy infantry) most inexperienced soldiers.
The Hastati fighting in the first line were younger and less experienced Roman citizens between the ages of 25 and 30. They were equipped with a shield (the scutum), a bronze helmet (cassis), the pectorale (a bronze rectangular piece of metal protecting the chest), two pila (javelins), and a sword (Gladius). Each legion had 1.200 Hastati organized in 10 maniples.
Here you can find out more about the maniple as the smallest tactical unit of the Roman legion.
The job of the Hastati was not to defeat the enemy. Instead, they were expected to exhaust the enemy while keeping the casualties low and then retreat behind the second line of battle that was made up by the Principes. Here you can find more information on that, why Rome generally used its heavy infantry to break the enemy by putting head-on pressure on him, and what a Roman order of battle usually looked like.
The Principes – the second line of battle
The Principes are pretty interesting. While the name Principes means „the first“ they are deployed in the second line only entering combat after the Hastati had a go at it. The reason for that goes back to the early days of Rome when Roman soldiers still fought as Hoplites. Here you can find out more about the origins of Rome.
When fighting in a phalanx formation it made sense to put the most experienced and best-armored men in the first ranks while the less equipped and less experienced men manned the rear ranks providing depth to the phalanx. Here you can find more information on why that worked in a phalanx but wouldn`t have worked that well in the manipular system.
The Principes fighting in the second line were Roman citizens between the age of 30 and 40 who were equipped with a shield (the scutum), a bronze helmet (cassis), the lorica hamata (a shirt of chainmail), two pila (javelins), and a sword (Gladius). Their job was to finish off the enemy that had been weakened by the Hastati by putting head-on pressure on his line. Each legion had a total of 1.200 Principes organized in 10 maniples at 120 men each.
So it shows that apart from their body armor, their age, and their experience there was no difference between Hastati and Principes.
And while the Principes were expected to win the battle – a task they accomplished most of the time – that was not always the case. In case the Principes were not able to break the enemy lines the third and last line made up of 600 Triarii was sent in.
The Triarii – the third and last line of battle
Since we have already talked about the potential double-function of the Triarii under the headline „The Hasta – a thrusting lance only used by the Triarii“ I will not repeat that but instead just briefly talk about the age of the Triarii.
The 600 Triarii within a legion formed the third and last line that was usually 3 men deep and deployed in a continuous line. The Triarii were Roman citizens between the age of 40-45 who were equipped with a shield (the scutum), a bronze helmet (cassis), the lorica hamata (a shirt of chainmail), the hasta (a thrusting lance), and a sword (Gladius).
So the only difference between the Principes and the Triarii apart from age and experience is the use of the Hasta instead of the javelins.
As a Roman participated in more campaigns and got older (as a result his net worth usually increased allowing him to buy more and better armor) he gradually rose from fighting with the Velites to fighting with the Triarii.
Well, at least if he survived long enough. Before the Marian reforms turned to be a soldier in a career, more on that here, every Roman citizen with a certain net worth was required to participate in wars for 12 years if he was called to arms. The chance of surviving these 12 years depended on the time, however, it was not overly good for most of the time of the Roman Republic.
Here you can find out more about the combat mortality rate of Roman soldiers and how many survived their 12 years of being eligible for military service. And here you can find out more about the devastating effects that the expansion of Rome had on the Roman middle class (and how that made the Marian reforms of 107 BC necessary).
Another outcome of the Marian results was that the Hastati, Principes, and Triarii were condensed into one uniformly armed and uniformly armored group of Roman soldiers, the so-called miles.
Weapons & Armor of the Roman soldier after the Marian reforms (107 BC – 3rd century AD)
As we have found out, prior to the Marian reforms the Roman heavy infantry consisted of the Hastati, the Principes, and the Triarii. The Marian reforms of 107 BC that are usually attributed to the general and politician Caius Marius simplified that.
After the Marian reforms of 107 BC every Roman legionary was uniformly equipped with a shield (the scutum), a helmet (galea or cassis), the lorica hamata (a shirt of chainmail), two light 600 grams (1,3 lbs) pila (javelins), and a sword (Gladius). Additionally, the age and wealth requirements were removed, and being a soldier became a job rather than a civic duty.
That development, especially the dependency of the regular soldiers on their general to provide them with a retirement, caused a shift in loyalty away from the Roman Republic and the Senate to the individual generals which opened the door to the Civil Wars that eventually destroyed the Roman Republic. But that is a story for another time.
But the Roman legionaries did not only use the lorica hamata, shirts of chainmail. The lorica segmentata, a body armor made out of overlapping metal strips, that is worn by the Roman soldiers in the Asterix comics, was used by Roman legionaries as early as 9 BC as findings from the battle of the Teutoburg Forest show. It could however never surpass the lorica hamata and went out of use during the 3rd century AD.
By the way. The name lorica segmentata is not a Roman name but was invented by antiquarians in the 16th century since the original Roman name for that kind of armor is unknown.
So there we have it. The different weapons and armor that Roman soldiers used in different periods of the Roman hegemony over Italy and the Mediterranean.
And while the armor was certainly good it was not exceptionally better than any armor that the enemies of Rome used (most of the equipment the Romans used was actually copied from former enemies). So the weapons and armor can not really be seen as the deciding reason for why the Roman army was so successful.
I did however write an entire article going into depth about the reasons that made the Roman army so successful. You can find it here!
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Johannes Kromayer: Heerwesen und Kriegsführung der Griechen und Römer (München 1963).