During the expansion of Rome and the acquisition of new territory, the Roman armies faced fierce resistance and violent conflicts that required effective protection for soldiers and guaranteed victory for Rome.
Armour played a crucial role in saving soldiers on the battlefield, particularly when it was designed specifically for the upper body. To ensure its effectiveness, the construction of the armour needed to meet certain standards. Firstly, it had to be flexible enough to allow soldiers freedom of movement during battle. Secondly, it had to be lightweight so that they could wear it without getting worn down while still receiving protection against enemy weapons. Lastly, the armour needed to be produced at a low cost.
Roman armour design in the army was shaped by three key factors: freedom of movement, protection, and cost. During the first century A.D., there were four main types of armour: muscle, scale, mail, and segmented mail, with the segmented breastplate being the most prominent. To study these armour types, three sources of evidence are examined: iconographic representations, archaeological findings, and literary source documents.
The Roman Army’s need for well-built armor influenced the evolution of Roman armor. During the first century A.D., the army was established within the Empire and fell under the Emperor’s control. With approximately thirty legions in the Roman army, the demand for sturdy armor was greater than ever on the frontiers. The army comprised two main parts: the legion, which only accepted Roman citizens as members, and the auxiliary, consisting of non-citizens from Rome’s settled territories.
Historian Webster initially claimed that the equipment used by legionnaires was consistent across the Roman Empire. However, no evidence has been found to support this view, indicating that a wide range of equipment types and ages were in use simultaneously. Peterson proposes that uniformity in Roman army armor may have been limited to soldiers possessing their own body armor, helmet, weapons, and shield displaying a common trademark. Bishop and Coulston suggest that soldiers in this era may have personally acquired their own equipment.
Owning one’s own armor had the impact of fostering personal responsibility and increasing respect for the equipment. While some soldiers may have obtained their gear from army stock, they also had the option to buy more intricate and costly items from private craftsmen. However, this was probably only feasible for higher-ranking soldiers like centurions. It is suggested that military equipment would be sold back or passed on to new owners upon retirement or death. This practice, combined with recycling old armor and repairing damaged equipment, meant that objects could have a long lifespan. Consequently, the production of new armor would have been relatively low at any given time.
The ‘muscle’ plate was a popular type of Roman armor, designed to resemble muscles and fit the male chest. It was made of iron or bronze and could be either high-waisted or hip-length. The back plate had shoulder straps attached, with arm protectors tied to rings on the breastplate. These breastplates had side fastenings with hinges or rings joined by ties for flank protection. Unfortunately, no surviving metallic muscle breastplates from the Roman era exist. However, Etruscan versions made of metal have been discovered dating back to the 5th-3rd century BC. Some argue that leather was also used for muscle breastplates, but it would need to be thick and stiff in order to provide any defense. These breastplates were likely worn by emperors and high-ranking military leaders as a symbol of Roman power.
Another name for the breastplate known as scale armour was jezeraint armour.
Scale armour, believed by Peterson to be the oldest type of metal body armour, has a long history dating back to at least the second millennium B.C. It was commonly used in Greece and the East, and also throughout the entire period of Roman control. This type of armour typically had short sleeves and lower edges that reached the upper thighs. It was made from both iron and bronze. The manufacturing process involved attaching small sections of metal sheeting, of varying sizes, to their neighboring sections using wires or rivets. These metal sections were then sewn onto a flexible foundation made of hide or strong cloth. In early scale armour, small twisted links of bronze wiring were commonly used to join the sections together. These links were positioned in horizontal rows and overlapped upwards, creating a layered pattern resembling the scales of a fish or roof tiles.
Bronze scale armour pieces were discovered at the Corbridge site in Northumberland, England. These scales were very small and, given their high manufacturing cost, it is likely that an officer would have personally purchased this type of armour. A similar collection of 346 scales, made of yellow bronze, was found at the Newstead fort (A.D. 98-100), with measurements of 2.9 cm by 1.2 cm. Scale armour generally provides less defense compared to mail armour as it is neither as strong nor as flexible. Despite this, it remained popular during the Roman period, possibly due to its simpler manufacturing and repair processes.
Experiments show that arrowheads, when fired at various Roman armour at a distance of seven meters, were able to penetrate the armor in about half of the instances. This could be due to the shape and assembly of the scales. Archaeological findings suggest that this type of armor was more widespread than what surviving sculptures indicate, although only fragments of the armor have been preserved. Despite this evidence, the use of scale armor does not seem to have been as extensive as mail armor. According to Peterson, records indicate that mail armor was mainly worn by centurions and high-ranking officers between the first and second centuries A.D. It is widely accepted that the Romans learned the art of mail-making from the Celts, who were its original creators. Mail armor is composed of interlinked metal rings, with each ring connected to four others above and below it. In the first century, fine mail could be made from bronze or iron rings as small as three millimeters in diameter. While only fragments of mail remain in archaeological records, sculptures indicate that there were various styles of mail armor. The construction method for mail rings during Roman times would have been similar to later periods.According to Warry, mail can be created using two types of rings: solid rings or opened, linked rings that could be either butted or riveted shut. The Romans typically riveted the ends of the rings together, resulting in a stronger mail compared to the butted variety where the wire ends were simply butted together and could be easily torn open. These rings varied in size, with an outside diameter ranging from three millimeters to nine millimeters. The larger rings, measuring nine millimeters, were discovered in post first century A.D. sites.
Using mail armor had its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the rings provided excellent defense against slashing cuts and were effective against thrusts while still being very flexible. Since the armor consisted of interlinking rings, it suffered minimal wear and could easily be repaired even if severely damaged. Additionally, mail armor could be recycled and passed down from the legion to the auxiliary, remaining functional regardless of age or if another type of armor was introduced. This is supported by sculptured depictions on later works like Trajan’s column, which show that earlier forms of mail were still used by western legions during the Dacian campaigns.Mail, compared to other forms of armor, had a disadvantage of being labor-intensive to construct. It could take up to 180 hours to make a complete mail outfit for auxiliaries. This indicates that manufacturing mail must have been an expensive endeavor. Although mail allowed for reasonable freedom of movement, it was also heavy, weighing around 15 pounds. To offset the weight, a “military belt” could be tightened around the waist, distributing some of the weight onto the hips and relieving the shoulders. Furthermore, tests with contemporary arrow types suggest that most arrowheads could consistently penetrate the mail to a lethal depth for the wearer.
However, the mail was bunched at suspension points, which prevented deep penetration beyond three to five centimeters. This suggests that the practice of doubling mail shoulder defenses, employed by both Romans and Celts, may have saved the lives of their owners. Legionnaires likely extensively utilized mail during the late Republic until segmented plates were introduced in Claudian times. Testing also revealed that deformed mail rings occasionally locked arrow shafts in place, making them difficult to remove and wounds more challenging to treat. Unless heavily padded with a thick doubled layer, mail did not absorb the impact of a blow and could be driven into the wearer’s flesh. Consequently, after segmental armor was introduced, mail became primarily used by auxiliary troops.
The segmented armour breastplates are the most well-known form of armor from the first century. This name originated during the Renaissance, although it was not coined by the Romans. The exact origins of this articulated plate armor are unclear. One theory suggests that it may have been introduced to the Roman army from the gladiatorial arena. It is believed that Roman legionnaires encountered this armor for the first time during the Florus and Sacrovir revolt in 21 A.D. This uprising involved heavily armored gladiators, known as crupellarii, who fought against the legionnaires. Tacitus documented how the legionnaires were able to penetrate the segmented armor of the gladiators using pickaxes and kill them in battle.
There is a high possibility that by the time Emperor Claudius’ troops invaded Britain in A.D.43, this particular form of armor was already being issued as standard equipment for legionaries. The segmented armor consisted of collar and shoulder units, which were composed of twenty four plates and sixteen girdle plates. The girdle plates, half semi-circular iron lames made from strips of iron sheet, were positioned horizontally and riveted onto leather straps. These lames were laced at the center of the chest and back, completely surrounding the torso while still allowing for freedom of movement. The bands were held in place by a complex system of straps, buckles, and fasteners made of thin brass sheet. In addition, two half-collars (shoulder guards) made of articulated lames completed the defense. Each collar consisted of a small breastplate attached to other lames that formed a neck guard. Both shoulder guards were made up of five plates, with the larger upper plates connected by bronze hinges, just like the collar units underneath.
This form of armor, which was more advanced than mail and provided better protection, had the advantage of being lighter in weight. It averaged around twelve pounds, depending on the thickness of the plates used. The plates were made through hammer work and analysis shows that they were not hardened like other Roman armors. Instead, it is believed that the armories intentionally created “soft” armor that could absorb blows by crumpling upon impact. This allowed the metal to deform extensively and effectively absorb weapon strikes without penetrating deeply enough to cause serious injury. This type of armor was likely primarily used by specific legions who faced Celtic fighters with long swords targeting their head and shoulders. However, this segmented plate armor did have disadvantages such as reduced protection for the upper arms and thighs.Simkins observes that during Emperor Trajan’s campaign against the Dacians, the Romans encountered enemies armed with long falx swords resembling scythes. In ancient times, legionnaires were equipped with weapons capable of penetrating their protective shield and harming their vulnerable sword arm. Despite the risk to their legs, which were left unprotected for mobility purposes, evidence suggests that in certain campaigns, legionnaires may have enhanced their defense by wearing segmental armguards similar to those used by gladiators.
Various archaeological findings support the existence of this specific type of armor, with segmented armor being more frequently discovered than scale or mail armor. Notably, two complete sets of this armor were found in 1964 at Corstopitum – a Roman station located at Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. This site remains the only place where intact examples of this armor have been found.
Another version of segmented armor has been reconstructed from fragments unearthed at Newstead near Melrose in Scotland. It is believed that this variant was developed in the later years of the first century. Depictions on Trajan’s Column often portray legionary soldiers wearing this type of armor.
Determining how long the earlier Corbridge pattern was used before it was replaced by the Newstead variation proves challenging. The Newstead type may have remained in use for an extended period after its introduction due to two factors.The Newstead type simplifies the design of armor by removing elaborate fittings like buckles and ties. Instead, simple rivets and hooks are used for fastenings. The shoulder plates are riveted together, while the girdle lames are larger with a possible reduction in pairs. The inner shoulder-guard plate is now a single strip instead of three hinged plates, extending further down at the front and back. The breast and upper back plates are inflexible and deep, constructed similarly to the girdles with internal leather straps holding them together.
The simplification of this type of armor suggests that earlier versions were likely too complex and required excessive labor and maintenance, making them more prone to deterioration. This form of armor was widely used during this period due to its effectiveness. In contrast to earlier designs, segmented plate armor was flexible, lighter, and easier to maintain and repair. The design of this armor also adapted to the fighting techniques of various enemies and the economic needs of Rome at the time. Armor provides valuable insights into the Roman Army, its warfare strategies, and the economy of the first century. The changes in military equipment demonstrate how Roman forces adopted technologies from other civilizations with whom they clashed.
The armour forms borrowed from the Greeks and Celts demonstrate how modifications were made to defend against particular threats posed by enemies. By the 1st century A.D., a significant portion of soldiers’ gear, including armour, was influenced by previous adversaries. This paper identifies four distinct types of armour, each possessing unique features and variations. Each type offers its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of safeguarding, maneuverability, and expense.
The introduction of the segmented breastplate, in its simplest form, was one of Rome’s greatest pieces of armor produced. This suggests a trend toward balancing three factors.
Bishop, M.C. and Coulston, J.C.N., Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to The Fall of Rome. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1993.
The publication “Military Illustrated: Past & Present” in 1992 featured an article titled “Legio XIIIIGMV: Roman Legionaries Recreated (2)” written by D. Peterson. This article can be found on pages 36-42.
Simkins, M., The Roman Army from Caesar to Traian. Hong Kong: Osprey Military Press, 1994.
Tacitus, C., The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. Michael Grant. London: Penguin Classics, 1989.
Warry, J., Warfare in the Classical World. London: Salamander Books Ltd, 1980.
Webster, G.’s book titled “The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D.” was published in London by Adams ; Charles Black in 1969.