Roman swards
Roman swards

John Smith and Jenny Kingsbury

Roman Arms and Armour


Report of a talk given by John Smith on 13 Nov 2012

Military history may be a minority interest, but it is always a pleasure to listen to someone who is an expert in his field and can communicate his enthusiasm. With a knowledge of the specialism comes a wider understanding of the world in which it operates. Knowing about helmets, body armour, swords and pile (javelins) implies a knowledge of the people who used them, the society that created them and of course those unfortunates who were on the receiving end of it all. And indeed many unfortunate people were recipients of the Roman Army's version of "shock and Awe" as John says, even to hear a detachment of re-enactors in full battle gear marching in rhythm with their armour clanking is intimidating enough. Imagine a couple of legions with their weapons and armour dazzling in the sunlight.

John's expertise was much in evidence and his fine collection of replica arms and armour attested to his enthusiasm.

He began with helmets and explained the two methods of manufacture which involved either "beating" or "spinning". In the first a single sheet of metal (bronze or iron) was beaten repeatedly with a hammer until the required form was achieved- This was the stronger but slower and more expensive method.

Spinning was a method whereby the metal sheet was forced down over a former on a lathe. This could be done with bronze but not iron which had too many impurities for it to be successful. Interestingly modern replicas are generally of better quality than the originals because of the more consistent materials now available. The quality of the materials used can be a clue to the strategic situation on the ground. For example, the distribution of helmet finds either side of the Foss Way suggests that better armed troops were deployed to the west hinting at stiffer resistance on that side.

The production of swords was yet more complex and led to an even greater variation in style. Too much detail to include here but the same losses of quality apply. John gave some interesting insights into their use in the Roman Army which bring us closer to those who wielded them. It seems that they were individualised by the use of distinguishing markings on the shield plate. For a sudden alert it was vital for the soldier to be able to locate his own equipment in crowded quarters as the Baldrick would be individually adjusted to suit the wearer's own build and preference. It is believed that the sword was generally worn on the right. This may seem counter-intuitive but John demonstrated how, with the shield held to protect the left side of the body, it was actually easier to draw the sword in this way.

Other weapons included the pilum, an ancestor of the javelin, and special spears used by the military police and cavalry lances. One design of pilum had the business end attached by means of a simple socket. The primary purpose of this weapon was to disable the opponent's shield, but experiments have shown that where the throw missed its mark and hit the ground the end became because of the way in which it was weighted it would settle on the ground with its point angled in the direction of the approaching enemy thereby taking on a secondary role as a kind oi land mine.

John then turned his attention to the armour. Two completely
different types were described and both bore witness to the highly developed skills of the Roman blacksmiths. Chain mail was formed of a mesh of interlinked wire rings. Each garment would have contained several thousand of these, and on the more sophisticated examples each link would be not only carefully formed to close the ends but would actually be joined with a rivet 1mm in diameter. It appears that trip hammers were used in the process suggesting that production was almost on a scale with levers achieved in the industrial Revolution.

The second type was plate armour, otherwise known as lorica segmentata, which consisted of overlapping metal plates secured
around the shoulders, arms and torso. It was reckoned that a Roman soldier could don one of these in 90 seconds but only if he pulled it on over the head rather than being buckled into it. But this raised another question, as the known segmentata suggest a very much shorter and stockier build of person than had been imagined. As this style of armour developed it went through a number of changes that John likened to the successive marks of the spitfire in WW2. Not necessarily involving changes in performance, they were more likely to do with ease of maintenance making it easier and quicker to replace elements, or to dismantle for repair. So it has been estimated that the earliest examples contained as many as 400 components while this number has been reduced to 200 in its later version.

It was interesting to see that the same processes and decisions about cost and efficiency were operating 2000 years ago. Another point of similarity was the pack that the Roman soldier carried-this weighed about 32 kg plus the soldier's personal effects - this is very much in line with the pack toted by the modem British soldier in the field.

John concluded with some general reflections on archaeology. He
reminded us that it is essentially to do with the lives of people and how they dealt with the everyday problems of making things work effectively. In order to interpret these solutions it is often as well to call on the skills of their modem counterparts: farmers, builders, soldiers, whose understanding may contribute more than that of an academically trained archaeologist.

He also put in a plea for the tracking down and exploration of rubbish tips. Repositories for all the debris of human life contain a lot of information. Often sited outside the main settled area they can easily be overlooked by excavators.

His final comment was a warning that the national Curriculum was
about to change and with it the teaching of History with a change back to a greater emphasis on names and dates. It looked as though British History was now going to begin after the Romans had left!

John's recommended reading for anyone interested in the detail of Roman Arms and Arrnow was a work which focuses on the practical skills of making armour.

Sim, D. and Kaminski, J. 'Roman Imperial Armour', Oxbow Books.

Peter Johnson

Roman helmet and spearpoint
Roman helmet and spearpoint