Book Review by DecimusCaesar
Through Hollywood films, television documentaries and re-enactments by the Ermine Street Guard, everyone now knows what an Imperial Roman soldier looks like. He wears a red tunic over which he has segmented iron armour, the famously distinctive Imperial-Gallic helmet, hobnailed sandals and a heavy rectangular shield. This image has become deeply associated with ancient Rome in as much the same way as the toga clad senator or the Gladiator.
It’s so deeply embedded that it’s hard to imagine Imperial Roman soldiers as looking any different, but as Raffaele D’Amato and Graham Sumner point out in this fascinating book, Roman military costume, armour and helmets were much more diverse, exotic and strange than we usually imagine.
The focus of this book is one the period between Gaius Marius and the Emperor Commodus (112 BC – AD 192) and during this era Roman armour took many diverse turns. This is brought vividly to life a few pages into the book as we are presented by one of many excellent reconstructive colour plates by Graham Sumner. It’s here that we learn that this is no conventional Roman Army book covering the same ground as a dozen others. Instead D’Amato and Sumner re-introduce a long dismissed hypothesis, that the majority of Roman soldiers did not wear metal armour, but instead wore leather.
This idea has been long dismissed as ‘Hollywood’ fantasy by many serious scholars of the Roman army, but D’Amato provides a wealth of textual and archaeological evidence to support this idea – including close analysis of ancient statues, mosaics and the remains of armour found across the Roman world. The authors also argue that much of the gaudy decorative helmets and facemasks long associated with parade armour and the Hippika Gymnasia cavalry sports might have actually been worn on the battlefield instead. As a result this book slaughters some rather old sacred cows, but at the same time it’s one of the freshest insights into old sources that I’ve come across in a long time.
For those used to conventional reconstructions of Roman soldiers wearing similar costumes prepared to be amazed with this book – from a reconstruction of a Marian legionary in a conical horned helmet and legs wrapped in coal black puttees; to Caesarian soldiers in Greek style leather linothorax painted in a nauseating yellow colour, complete with huge scarlet feathers in their helmets. D’Amato makes some convincing arguments that Roman armour was still heavily influenced by Hellenistic styles well into the republican era, which explains why some centurions carry circular shields like hoplites.
The wealth of information covered is stunning, and D’Amato leaves no stone unturned. Ancient written sources as well as art are analysed critically, even though it’s been popular among archaeologists to ignore those sources and concentrate entirely on the helmets or armour dug up on site. The authors also dismiss the long held belief that sculptors and ancient artists were unfamiliar with Roman armour, and that certain statues or mosaics should be ignored for not being accurate reconstructions. D’Amato has certainly spent a painstakingly long time researching these things, as the book is filled with hundreds of his own photographs collected from museums across the world.
The book covers a diverse set of topics, from armour, helmets, belts, tunics, shoes and other equipment; to the different groups within the Roman army, from legionaries to Auxilia, as well as cataphracts and cavalry sports. He also looks at other things not normally covered such as medals, standards and musical equipment, although these are not studied in as much depth as the other subjects.
The tone of the book is rather scholarly, and frequent references are made to the book’s sources, so it’s not for those with little or no knowledge of the Roman army. That doesn’t mean the writing itself is stuffy. It’s readable but the text is not captivating, however considering the material this book is hardly a narrative history or a novel, so as a technical guide it works well. Overall, it’s a must have for anyone with a serious interest in the Legions, and a real eye-opener for anyone who thinks Roman soldiers all looked like those extras from movies like Gladiator, Centurion or Ben-Hur.