Guide to Roman Armor Types, Styles and Characteristics
The Roman Empire was one of the largest and most powerful empires in world history. With territory spanning from Spain to the Persian Gulf, the Roman Empire required a strong military to secure and sustain its influence in far-flung areas.
The Imperial Roman army is considered one of the longest-surviving armies in history. Throughout Roman history, the army grew and evolved to match the changing needs of an ever-expanding empire.
The soldiers, officers, and generals who made up the Roman army required effective supplies to win wars and obtain new land. Armor was one category of military equipment that was essential for survival for all types of soldiers.
Roman armor is a complex topic, due to the long history of the Roman Empire and the many types of soldiers that made up its army. What we know about Roman armor comes from a few key sources: Roman literature, military documents, art, and artifacts.
This article aims to use these types of evidence to provide a summary of the main types of Roman armor and helmet styles in the context of the overall history of the Roman Empire’s army.
Overview of the Roman Army
In order to better understand the types of armor used by the Roman Empire, it is helpful to take a look at the general history of the Roman army.
Roman culture heavily influenced the diverse areas under the Empire’s control. Likewise, these cultures also influenced Roman armor and helmet designs.
Although the Roman army is considered one of the largest and most successful in the world, it was formed from obscure beginnings. According to Plutarch, the legendary Romulus created the first legionary forces after establishing Rome.
Another possibility, according to Livy, is that Rome’s earliest army actually began as a civil militia that recruited based on social rank.
Regardless, the first account of a Roman legion appears between 150 and 120 BC and was documented by Polybius. He describes a manipular legion, which was formed from small units, or maniples, of 120 to 160 men.
These units matched well with the loose formations of Rome’s early enemies and could outmaneuver popular phalanx formations.
In its earliest years, the Roman army operated on a seasonal basis. As the Empire grew and new enemies emerged, the army began creating permanent bases. These operations expanded after several key victories in the 100s BC.
Permanent military bases required soldiers to work year-round. This created a shortage of men in some areas. Consul Gaius Marius remedied this situation in 107 BC by enlisting volunteer fighters who lacked property.
Gaius also authorized the creation of the cohort unit to replace the maniple.
By the time of Augustus, several key military reforms were introduced to strengthen the Roman army and prepare for further expansion and consolidation of power. Augustus increased the required length of service, created a military treasury, and developed new military tactics.
The Romans deployed major cavalry units by the 2nd century AD.
We have already mentioned military units like maniples and cohorts, but the Imperial Roman army had a complex structure that requires further explanation.
Imperial Roman soldiers were divided into two major categories depending on their status. Legionaries were professional Roman infantrymen. Auxiliaries were non-citizens from diverse areas of the Empire. They provided the Roman army with unique skills.
A Roman legion included legionaries and cavalrymen who acted as scouts.
The organization of Roman soldiers can get complex, so for a detailed look at the structure of a legion, check out this video. For the purposes of this article, it is important to know that legionaries and auxiliaries made up the Roman army.
Cavalrymen, officers, and other roles helped support and lead infantrymen.
Ranks within a legion were highly standardized to promote efficiency. A commander took charge of the legion, with military tribunes to assist him. A praefectus castrorum oversaw camp logistics. He could command the legion in the absence of higher ranking officers.
A Roman legionary soldier usually signed up for service between eighteen and twenty years old. He signed up for a certain period of service with the promise of monetary compensation and land.
At its height, the Imperial Roman army had a military force of 350,000 men.
Another category of military professionals in the Roman Empire was the Praetorian Guard. Members of this elite group served as the emperor’s personal bodyguards and intelligence agents.
The Praetorian Guard was generally made up of nine cohorts, but could be as many as twelve depending on the emperor. Guard members served for sixteen years.
Roman Armor Types
There are three main types of armor used by the Roman Empire. The type of armor used by certain soldiers varied based on factors like age, rank, and place of origin.
One type of Roman soldier did not wear armor at all. The Velites were skirmisher units of the Roman army who were generally very young and poor.
These teenagers were required to bring their own equipment to the battlefield. Because of their low status, most lacked traditional armor and instead opted for a simple leather helmet.
Let’s explore the main categories of Roman armor and the characteristics of each.
Lorica hamata was iron mail similar to that of the European Middle Ages. The mail shirt was made from thousands of iron rings and covered the shoulders and torso.
The length of lorica hamata varied but always protected the torso area and the vital organs found there. Lorica hamata was the standard issue armor for legionaries and was therefore one of the most popular styles.
Lorica hamata was especially prevalent in the first century AD. The armor style is thought to have derived from the Celts. The Romans commonly incorporated armor characteristics from other cultures to make their own armor better.
While labor intensive due to having to forge and assemble thousands of interlocking rings, lorica hamata was well worth the effort to produce since it could last decades.
Perhaps the most famous Roman armor style, lorica segmentata largely replaced lorica hamata by around 20 AD. This segmented plate armor was made from metal strips attached together with hooks and leather straps.
Lorica segmentata covered the entire torso and shoulders. Most sets extended to the knee and included a studded apron for extra leg protection.
While the use of lorica segmentata was widespread, it was most common among legionaries and members of the Praetorian Guard. Auxiliary soldiers could also utilize lorica segmentata.
Lorica squamata was scale armor made from small, overlapping bronze or iron plates sewn to a leather garment. The little plates measured an average of two inches.
Like the other armor styles, lorica squamata mainly protected the torso region. Most shirts extended to the mid-thigh and included shoulder protection.
Lorica squamata was most commonly worn by standard bearers, centurions, and cavalry. Legionaries could wear lorica squamata as well. This style was used continually through the Roman Empire’s history.
Roman Helmet Styles
Roman soldiers utilized a wide range of helmet styles. Early in Rome’s history, soldiers had to provide their own head protection. This allowed for diversity.
Throughout the Roman Empire’s history, preferred helmet styles evolved and changed with cultural trends.
The Montefortino helmet was the standard Roman helmet of the second century BC, but existed from 300 BC to the first century AD.
The helmet had Celtic origins and featured a rounded conical shape with a top knob, and cheek and neck guards.
Montefortino helmets were made from iron or bronze.
The coolus style of Roman helmet was another Celtic-inspired design. The simple design allowed for its cheap mass-production, making the coolus one of the more popular helmet styles.
This helmet was crafted from brass or bronze and featured a rounded shape with a neck guard and knob on top.
The coolus was popular between the third century BC and first century AD. Its peak use occurred during the Gallic Wars between 58 and 50 BC.
The Imperial Gallic style helmet was popular during the third century AD. It featured a rounded cap, prominent cheek guards, and a flanged neck guard.
The helmet was crafted from iron.
The Imperial Italic helmet was used until the third century AD by centurions, Praetorian Guard members, and other high-ranking military men.
The Italic helmet is characterized by its reinforcing peaks, lack of eyebrow details, and bronze or iron construction.
The Intercisa helmet became popular towards the end of the third century AD. The helmet features more Eastern design elements.
The Celtic influences of earlier styles were replaced by those of Persia following political, economic, and cultural changes in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire.
The Berkasovo helmet is the most ornate style in Roman history. It first appeared in the third century AD and was likely reserved for high-ranking officers or cavalrymen.
The bowl of the helmet was formed from two halves joined by a heavy band. Large cheek guards and a distinctive nasal guard distinguish this intricate style from the others.