The Apparel of the Soldier

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The Apparel of the Soldier

Military Armor in Early Greece.

Armor evolved over the long period of Greek and Roman history, but the requirements remained standard. Armor had to protect the soldier's body, it had to allow him free movement of his arms and legs and it had to please the eye. Some of the earliest examples of military garb are from the late Mycenaean period; a vase called the "Warrior Vase" shows soldiers marching in column. They wear helmets and short kilts with tassels leaving their legs bare, and they carry "Figure-8" shields—shields which are pinched in at the middle so that when the soldier held it in front of him to protect his body, he could still use his arms to ward off the enemy. The warriors described in Homer's Iliad who fought in the Trojan War wore similar armor, except that most of them were described as having round shields. Their armor allowed them to run in case the spears they threw at their enemies failed to hit the mark.

The Hoplite.

As the Greek Dark Ages came to an end, the warrior of the sort found in Homer's Iliad gave way to a heavily-armed infantryman known as the hoplite. He wore a helmet, a metal corselet with metal shoulder pieces, and a triangular plate called a mitra to protect his groin. His legs below the knee were protected by greaves, which was armor shaped like the lower leg and fastened behind the calf. Under his corselet he wore a linen tunic and below his waist he had a kind of pleated leather kilt which gave his lower body some protection. He seems to have gone barefoot, for he is represented in art generally without shoes. He got his name "hoplite" from his large, round shield, called a hoplon. He fought in formation, drawn up in eight ranks, so that his shield on his left arm protected the right side of the hoplite beside him, while his own right side was protected by the hoplite on his other side. As long as the formation—known as a phalanx—remained unbroken, a hoplite army could avoid heavy casualties. It was a different matter if the phalanx broke. The hoplite was not a nimble soldier since running in full hoplite armor was not easy. Apparently when the Athenian hoplites defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 b.c.e., it was the first time that a hoplite army charged on the run. By the fourth century b.c.e., the Greeks discovered how effective the lightly-armed soldier called the "peltast" could be against hoplites, particularly in rough country which was ill-suited to hoplite tactics. The "peltast" carried a pelte, small, light shield of leather without a rim which did not impede his movements; if a hoplite had to run for his life, the best he could do was to throw away his shield and that was considered a great disgrace. Nonetheless Greek armies continued to use the phalanx. Philip II of Macedon (ruled 359–336 b.c.e.), the father of Alexander the Great, revamped it, making it larger and arming the troops with pikes about 13 feet long. This was the battle formation which Alexander used in the two great battles where he defeated the Persian king Darius Codomannus and conquered the Persian Empire.

The Roman Army.

The army that dominated the battlefields of the ancient world for the longest period was the army of Rome. In the early days of the Roman republic, it was a citizen army. A consul who set out on a campaign—Rome elected two consuls each year who served both as the principal magistrates of the state and as its commanders-in-chief—would conscript troops from the census list of those eligible to serve, who were owners of property. By the end of the second century b.c.e., Rome was in desperate need of more recruits, and a soldier named Marius, who would hold the consulship seven times during his life, opened the rank of the army to all volunteers. The next big change was made by the emperor Augustus who established a citizen army, made up of legionary soldiers who were citizens, and auxiliary troops who were not citizens and were paid somewhat less. We find their armor depicted on sculpture; Trajan's Column in Rome is particularly useful, for it shows the campaigns of the emperor Trajan in Dacia, modern Rumania. Sometimes fragments of a soldier's equipment are turned up by the archaeologist's spade, or found by accident.

Mail armor.

Roman soldiers in the Republic wore chain mail shirts, and they were not phased out until the first century c.e. Mail was made by interlocking one iron ring with four others. Making a corselet of mail required a great deal of skill and patience, but once made, it needed little maintenance. The iron rings rubbing against each other kept the mail shirt clean. The small farmers who formed the backbone of Rome's armies in the early republic probably wore mail that they inherited from their fathers or grandfathers. Shirts of mail in republican times to the first century b.c.e. reached the mid-thigh; in the early imperial period from the time of the emperor Augustus (27 b.c.e.–14 c.e.), they came to just below the waist, but the soldier got added protection from leather strips called pteruges at the shoulders and around the hips. Chain mail left something to be desired, for though it shielded a man against the slash of a sword, it was poor protection against an arrow or the thrust of a dagger. The arrow did not need to pierce the armor to kill, for it could force the rings of the mail shirt into the wound, causing infection, and the results could be fatal.

Scale Armor.

Scale armor was made from bronze or iron plates of various sizes which were connected in rows and then overlapped like the tiles of a roof. The finished product looked like fish scales—hence the name. It was cheaper to make than chain mail, and it gave better protection. Its disadvantage was that it was more difficult to put on and take off. In times of relative calm, the soldiers could rely on each other for help putting on their armor, but whenever a detachment was caught by a surprise attack, some of the troops might not succeed in putting on their armor in time to meet the onslaught of the enemy. Scale armor had been standard equipment for the Persian army long before Rome adopted it, for when Herodotus described in his Histories the army with which King Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 b.c.e., he reported that the Persian troops wore felt hats called tiaras, patterned tunics with sleeves, and coats of mail like fish scales. This type of armor remained popular in the East both in Parthia, Rome's enemy on the eastern frontier in the time of the emperor Augustus, and among the Sassanid Persians who took over the Parthian realm in the third century c.e. The Persians used cavalry with both riders and horses armed head-to-toe in scale armor, looking like medieval knights except that the horsemen rode without stirrups. The Romans were always quick to borrow good ideas, and adopted scale armor for themselves, both for infantry and heavy cavalry.

Plate Armor (Lorica Segmentata).

A corselet made of metal strips—called in Latin a lorica segmentata—is the type most often associated with the Roman soldier. It is the armor of choice for movie directors who film cinematic epics about ancient Rome. It was invented in the early first century c.e. and one theory is that it was introduced after a military disaster of 9 c.e. when three Roman legions were annihilated in the Teutoberg Forest in Germany. Excavations at a site identified as the scene of the disaster, however, have uncovered fragments of an early form of lorica segmentata, which shows that some of the Roman legionary troops who lost their lives in the Teutoberg Forest were, in fact, wearing a corselet of metal strips. So the invention was not the result of the disaster, though its speedy adoption may have been. The cuirass protecting the chest and diaphragm had overlapping girth straps and curved shoulder plates that provided good protection. The disadvantage was its fastenings: the soldier held the armor on his body with hook and strap fasteners that were never entirely satisfactory. Moreover the soldier's sweat as he fought degraded the leather straps that held the metal plates in place, and the resulting damage might require expensive repairs. The initial cost of making this type of cuirass, however, was less than for chain mail or scale armor. It has been generally believed that the cuirass of metal strips attached to a leather backing became more or less standard for the Roman legionary soldier from the second quarter of the first century c.e. until the third century c.e. when it was abandoned. This theory is difficult to prove, however, on the evidence of the ancient monuments and of archaeology. The Column still standing in the center of Rome which depicts the campaigns of the emperor Trajan (98–117 c.e.) into Dacia (modern Rumania) shows legionary soldiers wearing the lorica segmentata. It seems to have been standard equipment for the regular troops, where as the auxiliary troops—non-citizens recruited from the Roman provinces—wore other types such as mail shirts. But most of the fittings for the lorica segmentata cuirasses which archaeologists have discovered are from Roman forts that were held by auxiliary troops, not by the Roman legions. Moreover, although the Column of Trajan in Rome shows the lorica segmentata as the standard armor of the legionary soldier, there is another monument commemorating Trajan's Dacian campaign—a tropaeum or "Victory Memorial" erected at Adamklissi in Rumania—and there both the Roman legionaries and the auxiliaries wear scale armor. The Adamklissi monument was sculpted by artists who were close to the battlefront and knew what both the Romans and the Dacians really wore in battle. The sculptors who carved the great spiral on Trajan's Column showing the Dacian campaign in a continuous frieze worked in Rome. They knew merely what the legionary soldier was supposed to wear—not what he did wear.

The "Muscled Cuirass."

The "muscled cuirass" which encased the torso and showed the pectoral and stomach muscles underneath, was developed in the Hellenistic world, and the emperor Augustus made it a popular type for imperial sculpture. One of the most famous statues of Augustus, the Prima Porta statue, shows him in a warrior's uniform with a muscled cuirass that sculpted the musculature of his abdomen. Augustus is portrayed with the physique of an athlete—in fact, his body has the proportions which the classical sculptor Polycleitus used for his nude figures of athletes—and his breastplate follows the contours of the well-developed pectoral and stomach muscles which the onlooker is to assume were underneath it. (In fact, Augustus did not have an athlete's physique; he was not an impressive physical specimen.) Statues of torsos encased in armor plate of this sort have been found all over the empire, often headless, for the heads were sculpted separately and fitted to the base of the neck. It was a favorite type for statues of emperors. In fact, archeologists have not found a single example of an actual Roman "muscled cuirass," though there are examples surviving from the Hellenistic period. This suggests that in the Roman period, the muscled cuirass was parade armor, more popular with sculptors than it was on the battlefield. The Roman sculptors show two types: one with a high waist which would be suitable for a horseback rider, and the other coming further down the hips with a curved extension at the bottom that would not be very suitable for a cavalryman. These cuirasses were fastened at the sides with hinges or rings that were tied together.


The helmet of the early Roman legionary soldier was an inverted hemispherical bowl with cheek pieces. Large numbers of these helmets were found in a region of northern Italy called Montefortino, and so nowadays it is called the Montefortino helmet. A cheaper alternative to the Montefortino was the Coolus type which had a neck guard to protect the back of the neck. Both types were borrowed from the Celts, with whom the Romans fought many battles from 387 b.c.e. when a horde of Celts sacked Rome, down to the end of the second century b.c.e. The Romans romanized them by adding crests, which at first were made of feathers fitted to a knob on the crown of the helmet, but by the end of the first century b.c.e. they were made of horsehair, either red or black. In the Civil War period of the first century b.c.e. new types of helmets appeared made of iron rather than bronze, with distinctive cheek guards, embossed eyebrows and ribbing at the rear of the helmet. The crest was no longer fixed to a knob but to a crest holder on top of the helmet. Crests were ornamental, and may have been worn into battle in the early imperial period, but the troops shown on Trajan's Column did not wear crests. The helmet continued to develop to give the wearer increased protection until by the third century c.e., the head was almost completely encased.

Keeping Warm.

Roman armies operated in varied climates, from the chilly wet weather at Hadrian's Wall in Britain to the Euphrates River in modern Iraq. Keeping cool in hot weather was a genuine problem. Troops clad in mail armor operating on the eastern frontier were known as clibanarii, a word which comes from clibanus, meaning "oven." In other words, in hot weather, mail-clad troops baked. In colder climates, however, the soldier had a variety of cloaks to keep him warm. The sleeveless cloak of variable length called the paenula was made of heavy wool cloth, leather, or sometimes fur. It varied in length, and sometimes had a hood. It survives as the chasuble, a sleeveless vestment worn by priests who are saying Mass. Another item of clothing that was taken over as a vestment of the church was the dalmatica, so called because it was woven from the wool of sheep from Dalmatia (the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea). It was a long tunic with long, wide sleeves which came into fashion in the second century c.e. The cucullus was a close-fitting cape with a peaked hood which extended to the waist. It gave protection against rain and cold. If it were open in front, it would have to be held together by a fastener of some sort, but if it was closed in front—as some of them were—it would have to be put on over the head, like a poncho. The lacerna was a cloak first worn by the troops which became popular among civilians because it was a practical overgarment for the toga. The sagum was a short military cloak of rough wool which Rome borrowed from the Gauls, and it became so popular with the soldiers that "putting on the sagum" was an idiom for going to war. It was probably no more than a rectangle of heavy cloth draped over the shoulders and tied under the chin. The paludamentum was a military cloak for the general. It was woven from purple wool, and though the size could vary, nine feet long and five feet wide is a good estimate of its size. When it is shown in sculpture, it is held at the right shoulder by a round brooch and then is thrown back so that the general's—or emperor's—muscled cuirass can be shown. It was a garment for parades, not for campaigning in the field.

Keeping the Legs Warm.

The opinion shared by both Greeks and Romans was that trousers were barbarian dress. The Gauls wore them. They were called bracae in Latin, a word related to the English word "breeches." Vergil in his Aeneid called them "the barbarian coverings of the legs." In the days of the Roman republic, the province of Transalpine Gaul—that is, Gaul beyond the Alps—had the unofficial name of "Gallia bracata": Gaul where the people wear trousers. On the other hand, Cisalpine Gaul—Gaul south of the Alps, that is, the Po Valley of Italy which had been colonized by Gauls in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e.—was "Gallia togata": the Gaul where togas were worn. If Roman soldiers disparaged trousers as barbaric, they did deign to wear stockings. At Vindolanda, one of the forts along Hadrian's Wall in the United Kingdom, a cache of Roman writing tablets contained a letter from a Roman soldier thanking a friend or relative for the gift of a pair of socks and underpants. Socks, often brightly colored, were also worn by civilians. The emperor Augustus himself, who was not robust, liked warm stockings. In the fourth century c.e. paintings and mosaics show a new type of leg covering, which seems to be a strip of cloth wrapped around the lower legs like the puttees worn by soldiers in the First World War. Presumably the soldier also wore socks in his military boots. The Roman prejudice against trousers was not universal; the soldiers recruited from non-citizen provincials who served in the Roman forces for 25 years and received citizenship when they were discharged did apparently wear trousers.


Norma Goldman, "Reconstructing Roman Clothing," in The World of Roman Costume. Eds. Judith Lynn Sebesta and Larissa Bonfante (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994): 213–237.

Mary G. Houston, Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine Costume and Decoration. 2nd ed. (London, England: Adam and Charles Black, 1947).

A. H. Snodgrass, Early Greek Armour and Weapons (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964).

—, Arms and Armour of the Greeks (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1967).

Graham Sumner, Roman Army: Wars of the Empire (London, England: Brassey's, 1997).

George R. Watson, The Roman Soldier (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1969).

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The Apparel of the Soldier

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