Jump to content
UNRV Ancient Roman Empire Forums
Sign in to follow this  
Gordopolis

The Late Roman Legionary - Armour or no Armour?

Recommended Posts

PunicLegio.jpg?height=320&width=213 PrincLegionary.jpg?height=320&width=213 LimArmour.jpg?height=320&width=240 LimNoArmour.jpg?height=320&width=151

From left: a Republican-era legionary, a Principate-era legionary, then two options for a later, Dominate-era legionary - armour or no armour?

 

So what is the take on URNV re Vegetius' claim that the late legions operated without armour?

 

I don't buy the decay and decline theory. I reckon they chose not to wear armour only when it suited them (i.e. tactically). Here's my thinking:

http://www.gordondoherty.co.uk/writeblog/thelateromanlegionary-armourornoarmour

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The late empire soldiers were once again forced to supply their own gear. Numbers of men under arms had occaisionally risen to huge numbers - the worst case being during Diocletians Tetrarchy when paranoia between the four leaders resulted in an arms race. That meant raditional means of supply no longer worked. Strictly speaking a Roman soldier had always been responsible for equipping himself - it was just that the Late Republic/Principate underwrote the costs and made the soldiers suffer stoppages in the pay to fund the equipment. Much of what the legion needed had been made by their own artisans in the major fort's workshops ort by local workers under contract when demand exceeded supply. Later, this system failed. Attempts were made to introduce a central supply system with larger scale 'factories' making stuff, but again, this did not  work well.

 

Bear in mind that the funding of military equipment was often made by the noble/politician put in charge if the local supply couldn't meet demand, but with money being far less available in the late empire (ironically the increase in coinage shows how little value late empire money had) that sort of sponsorship was less prevalent. Also the idea of booty from war used to fund military activity was less available too. Further, troops were often unpaid in later times thuis could not afford equipment anyway, so simply made do.

 

basically then Vegetius is right. Many troops were badly under-equipped in the late empire. But before we settle on a financial answer - it also has to be said that Roman strategy and tactics were changing. The old form of heavy infantry dominance was no longer working effectively when battles were gnerally smaller, forces more mobile and less confrontational, and so the Romans had begun relying more on 'low level warfare' as Dr Goldsworthy puts it, such as ambushes and raids. The Romans were actually quite good at it, which was just as well, because the skills of fighting large set piece battles had largely been lost.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Good post Caldrail.  Just one question:  what evidence have you found that the fabricae (factories) did not work well?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Roman production was not geared toward mass supply in the manner we do these days. Their production was basically a cottage industry - if you needed more output, you simply created a new workshop with up to a couple of dozen others. Therefore any issues with the manner of production were simply replicated on a larger scale.

 

The problem was also compounded by the sponsorship of new recruits. In the late empire, recruits were given a sum of money to equip themselves, which invariably they spent on something else more important at the time. When this money was stopped and the central supply attempted, it only resulted in discipline issues as recruits felt the pinch (also bear in mind that Roman soldiers paid their way daily - bribery and purchase were parts of ordinary life - the Roman legions had long since officially published a schedule for acceptable bribe rates (from Tacitus, concerning the rebellion in Pannonia)

 

Roman roads are often interpreted by us in modern terms - ie - they were supposedf to be used for trade and transport. This is however wrong, as trade was usually local. There is a documentary on television abiout military logistics in which the presenter looks at the remains of an amphora found at Vindolanda on Hadrians Wall, which was identified as coming from a farm in Spain. The presenter assumed the goods arrived direct by order - very unlikely - whereas it was probably shipped to Britain in opoortunistic dealing and purchased by the military from a merchant closer to the fort. Roads were primarily for military and polical communication. Anyone could use them, but long range shipping was more often done by water where possible. It's the same phenomenon as the Silk Road - no goods were ever transfwerred from Rome to China or back directly - they always went from merchant to merchant.

 

To add to our supply issues then, we have issues of personal reward, not only within the military, but those dealing with supply. This was a period when recruitment was done by agents who were bribed to go away. Instead of taking men from settlements as desired, they simply bought mercenaries who were cheaper and hence made a big profit from the role. External supply would have had exactly the same issues.

 

During the glory days of the empire legions made much of their own equipment in their own workshops. They made and sold what they needed. Once you add commercial siupply, when it might become unprofitable to supply the military, the situation was out of legionary control.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree that Vegetius' probably misunderstood the commando/guerrilla style warfare introduced/escalated in the 4th century and misinterpreted it as a failing rather than an innovation.

 

I'm still not sure re the fabricae argument though. Vegetius is quite specific in stating that "From the foundation of the city till the reign of the Emperor Gratian, the foot wore cuirasses and helmets". The fabricae had been in place since Diocletian's time, so it would seem odd if they were to suddenly falter and fail to serve their purpose after nearly 100 years of delivery. 

 

P.S. Caldrail - I just realised why your username is familiar to me: have we had a similar debate to this on WorldHistoria?

http://www.worldhistoria.com/topic129265.html :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

No, that's not the case. Supply had originally been from fabricae located in the legionary forts or local civilian workshops if demand rquired it. The centralised fabricae system of the late empire did not last - it failed to supply the legions with the required items and thus as a military innovation it was a failure. Vegetius is actually quite wrong about helmets and cuirasses. For much of their history (including Vegetius' era) Roman soldiers wore chainmail predominantly, and the earliest cuirass were nothing more than square plates hung over the chest with second rate protection. The famous banded mail lorica segmentata was a rather late innovation (the earliest accepted date is around 9BC) and fell into disuse in the third century.along with the short Gladius.

 

The heavier infantry armour therefore developed along with the domination of heavy infantry legions and their developed internal/localised supply network (forget most of what's said about Roman logistics - the Romans have been shown to be rather haphazard about logistics unless a situation required that troops perform, such as an ongoing campaign. During peacetime the whole organisation was rather less than the 'military machine' people like to describe it as. Soldiers were as often on leave as duty, officers pursued their leisure pursuits, and centurions were employed as civilian administrators as often as junior commanders)

 

This is a useful indicator as it happens - it illustrates the period when legions were operating at their organisational best, such as it was. But the costs of supplying this level of equipment were crippling, never mind the requirement for skilled artisans to create it, and notice there is no suggestion anywhere that the Romans were able to maintain the internal artisan system. Since skilled troops had to go into battle along with everyone else, clearly these losses were felt in the civil wars of the later empire. In fact, although we have become used in the modern era to thinking of military innovation as an upward phenomenon - it isn't necessarily so, since armies use whatever they believe will work for them and very quickly reject that which they believe is an encumbrance - the Roman legions take a step back ward toward a more sustainable equipment level when their supply system no longer manages to cope with the accentuated demand or the costs of provision.

 

PS - Welcom to UNRV :D

Edited by caldrail

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ah, I see. From what I've read, Diocletian's centralised fabricae (at least some of them) remained in place throughout Vegetius' era and well beyond into the 5th century, but it sounds like the system changed a fair bit in that time.

What sources can you recommend re the diversity of the fabricae system?

 

PS - glad to be here ;)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've thought about that. Most people at this point suggest a favourite book or two, but I don't really subscribe tothat way of doing things. I know this might not sound initially helpful, but focusing on one source is always prone to inviting bias into your knowledge - or at worst, complete nonsense. There is a certain satisfaction in piecing together a puzzle from various sources as long as you remain objective, because otherwise you tend to spend a lot of time rationalising between various accounts and again become a victim of bias.

 

To begin with I guess that Osprey do a number of relevant volumes thatset the scene quite well. Most of my info doesn't actually come from dedicated volumes on late empire legions - it's gathered from various histories discussing the late empire as a whole - you can't go far in Roman hiostory without considering their military - they were after all a very martial minded nation state. Other than that keep reading. The clues will appear eventually.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

One thing about armour manufacture - why was so much armour needed? The thing about swords, helmets and the like is that they do not wear out and can last several generations of soldiers. For example modern re-enactment groups will tell you that once you have some chain mail, you never simply discard it because making more is such a swine. Instead it gets used and reused, and woven into different sets of armour.

 

We know the ancient Greeks had family sets of armour passed from father to son, and I'd be surprised if the legion did not take - or buy-  a soldier's armour from him for re-use when he retired. So surely a fabrica was topping up an existing armour supply rather than making new gear for every recruit?

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

One thing about armour manufacture - why was so much armour needed? The thing about swords, helmets and the like is that they do not wear out and can last several generations of soldiers. For example modern re-enactment groups will tell you that once you have some chain mail, you never simply discard it because making more is such a swine. Instead it gets used and reused, and woven into different sets of armour.

 

We know the ancient Greeks had family sets of armour passed from father to son, and I'd be surprised if the legion did not take - or buy-  a soldier's armour from him for re-use when he retired. So surely a fabrica was topping up an existing armour supply rather than making new gear for every recruit?

Which is why defeats such as Adrianople were such a disaster.  Not only was it the loss of men, although that must obviously remain the main tragedy, but the loss of the battlefield meant that the Goths were able to capture all of the armour from the dead and severely wounded, meaning that the Romans then had to start from scratch equipping their newly-raised troops.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Actually the Goths had already looted Roman soldiery - they had won a victory against the Thracian garrison after the assassination plot by Lupicinius and Maximus failed and alerted the Gothic leaders to their situation.

 

 

 

One thing about armour manufacture - why was so much armour needed?

Perhaps you have over-estimated the scale of manufacture. It was all hand made, took plenty of man-hours to complete, and much of it was made in-house according to demand. There was no commercial production of armour from the Romans that I know of, and civilian manufacture only took place when the military found a need to supply beyond their normal capacity.

Edited by caldrail

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

  • Map of the Roman Empire

×