Equipment of the Roman Legionnaires
In the beginning of the Empire, around 0 AD, a Roman legion consisted of around 5,000 heavy infantry men and a small cavalry division of 120 riders. Usually the Roman legions were also assigned an equal number of archers, cavalry or light infantry as support units, which were recruited from among the populations of the Roman provinces. In contrast, Legionnaires had to be Roman citizens. An impedimenta with supplies and tools to build protected camps also accompanied them, so that a legion consisted of about 11,000 men overall.
The Legionnaires’ equipment was made up of a number of weapons and pieces of armor, but also consisted of tools and day-to-day utensils. The soldiers carried two kinds of attack weapons: multiple spears, called “pilum” and the “gladius”, a short sword.
The pilum of the imperial era was roughly 2.10m in length, 90cm of which consisted of an iron tip. In battle, the pilum was thrown into the enemy’s battle lines from a relatively short distance. Caesar describes its impact as follows: “…a single spear often pierced two overlapping shields and skewered them together, (…). Since their arms were now so strained that they couldn’t fight properly any longer, (…) they got rid of their shields and preferred to fight without protection.”
The sword of the Legionnaires, the gladius, was a double-edged weapon, measuring roughly 60cm in length and 5cm in width. It was mainly used to strike at short distance. It was only later during the imperial era that the legions used the spatha, a long sword that was primarily used as a baton.
The scutum, a large shield that was curved towards the edges for better body protection, was used as a defensive arm. It was made from thin, cross-bonded wood, bordered by an iron or bronze frame and had a metal boss in the middle, with the handle on the reverse side. The front side was covered in leather and decorated with silver or bronze ornaments in the form of Jupiter’s thunderbolts.
The shields of the cohorts were colored differently, as to easier identify them on the battlefield. Additionally, the names of the bearer and their Centurio were noted on the shields. When marching, the shield was carried on a strap over the shoulder.
The soldiers wore undergarments made from linen on their skin and a short-sleeved, woolen tunic that went down to their knees on top. The men’s legs remained bare; here protection was sacrificed for improved mobility. Wearing pants (bracae) seemed alien and unmanly to the Romans, even though, in cold regions, the Legionnaires were allowed to wear long underpants made of wool or leather, which reached just below their knees.
On their feet they wore well-crafted military footwear: Heavy sandals with multi-layer cleated soles. They laced the straps up to the middle of their shinbones and in cold weather, they could add wool or fur in between.
Body armor changed over the years and the different types or armor were often used at the same time. At the turn of the century, Legionnaires mostly wore chainmail. Later they also protected themselves with the “lorica segmentata”, elaborate armor made from multiple overlapping metal sheets that were bound together by leather straps on the inside in order to not compromise mobility. The shoulders were also protected by a number of curved sheets and the chest and back were covered by harness plates. The full armor could be put on in one piece and laced on the front side, yet it was still easy to disassemble for cleaning and repairing.
From around 100 AD scaled armor was also first used by the elite soldiers of the Praetorian Guard, while Legionnaires only received this equipment later on. All three types of armor were still in use during the reign of Constantine the Great.
The head was protected by a specially designed helmet, which consisted of a metal bowl with attached neck and face protection. Large cheek flaps protected either side of the head. Legionnaires wore a scarf around their neck to prevent the metal sheets from causing damage to the skin.
Around the stomach they wore a wide belt, which was sometimes decorated with ornate metal plates. An apron made of leather strips was attached to the front, with metal plates riveted to it. The apron swung when marching and seems to have mainly been used as decoration, even though in certain circumstances it could also provide some protection to the lower stomach and genitalia. On the side a dagger, the “pugio”, was attached to the belt.
Besides weapons and armor, each man also had a pioneer axe on their belt, whose sharp blade was often protected by a leather case. Additionally, each Legionnaire had a saw, a wicker-basket for excavated soil, a piece of rope or leather and a sickle. These items were carried on a special staff called “pilum murale”. In the later years of the imperial era, part of that gear was loaded onto a supply cart that accompanied the troops. The largest and heaviest items of the Legionnaires was the “papilio”, a leather tent. It was transported on a hinny together with two millstones for grain rations.
Equipment of the Centurions
Generally, the Centurion had a bold, magnificent appearance, making him stand out from the ordinary men. He wore a vest with leather, chain, or scale armor and metal shoulder pieces, as well as an opulently decorated belt. Around the hips he had a twice-folded skirt, similar to a kilt and the shinbones were protected by metal shin guards. From the left shoulder hung a gown with an elegant arrangement of folds, on his left side was his sword.