Saturday 4 May 2024

The British Museum - Legion Life in the Roman Army, Part One

A few days ago Carolyn and I caught the train up to London to stay with friends and travel into the city to visit the British Museum and their most recent exhibition illustrating Legion Life in the Roman Army. 

The British Museum is still one of the greatest collections of ancient historical artefacts in the world and so when they decide to exhibit the best of their own collection together with that of others, it often presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to see up close items that you usually only get to see reproduced in books, and as this is a very large exhibition I will present it in two posts to allow for an easier appreciation.

I, like many others, have a fascination for the Roman empire and in particular its military history with a focus presented here on the blog towards the Imperial era from Augustus through to the fifth century and the collapse, with a particular focus on Rome at its height of power from Augustus to Hadrian with all the struggles going on to expand against so called barbarian foes, internal civil strife and rebellions, to the period of just trying to hold on to what had been created.

Indeed I guess I have a great admiration for the Emperor Trajan, in my humble opinion, perhaps the greatest of the emperors and the last to appear clean-shaved and classically Roman, with my sons Tom and Will admiring Hadrian the 'Greekling' or as we older generations would call a 'hippie', but either way both classic soldier emperors, at the head of a formidable civil and military organisation before the plague from the east set in to undermine and ferment ultimate collapse.

So, if you regularly follow the blog or indeed are a casual reader I hope you will indulge me if I choose to journal this particular visit as much as for me to thoroughly digest the magnitude of the collection exhibited for myself, as well as to share it with my many other readers around the globe who will likely not have a chance to see the exhibition before it closes in June 2024.

I have attached the museum's description of this collection of items and the world it portrays, together with my collection of photos from our visit for those similarly interested in the might of Imperial Rome as expressed through her legions. Note that the museum has themed the exhibition as a presentation through the eyes and experiences of a typical first century Roman soldier Claudius Terentianus as the preamble from the museum's web site explains, and I have taken the liberty of using the same mechanism to describe the exhibits, sprinkled with a few exhibits of my own from my Dacian Wars collection and previous visits to other Roman collections posted about here on JJ's previously.

From family life on the fort to the brutality of the battlefield, experience Rome's war machine through the people who knew it best – the soldiers who served in it.

"Few men are born brave; many become so from care and force of discipline."
Vegetius, Fourth-century Roman writer

The Roman empire spanned more than a million square miles and owed its existence to its military might. By promising citizenship to those without it, the Roman army – the West's first modern, professional fighting force – also became an engine for creating citizens, offering a better life for soldiers who survived their service.

Expansive yet deeply personal, this exhibition transports you across the empire, as well as through the life and service of a real Roman soldier, Claudius Terentianus, from enlistment and campaigns to enforcing occupation then finally, in Terentianus' case, retirement. Objects include letters written on papyri by soldiers from Roman Egypt and the Vindolanda tablets – some of the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain. The tablets, from the fort near Hadrian's wall, reveal first-hand what daily life was like for soldiers and the women, children and enslaved people who accompanied them.

Emperor Augustus, Rome's first emperor (63 BC - 14 AD), ruled over at least 60 million people, but barely 20% were Roman citizens. He created the the empire's first full time career soldiers. Some 150,000 male citizens made up the core of his army, with an equal number of non-citizens to bolster the ranks. This head from a larger-than-life statue of Augustus was erected in Claudius Terentianus's homeland, Egypt, newly-conquered since 30 BC. Later torn down and buried beyond the imperial frontier, it symbolises resistance to Roman rule, and the need for a dependable military force to guard the empire's far flung borders.

Roman military history perhaps stretches as far back at the sixth century BC but it wasn't until the first emperor, Augustus (63 BC – AD 14), that soldiering became a career choice. While the rewards of army life were enticing – those in the legions could earn a substantial pension and those entering the auxiliary troops could attain citizenship for themselves and their families – the perils were real. Soldiers were viewed with fear and hostility by civilians – not helped by their casual abuses and extra roles as executioners and enforcers of occupation – and they could meet grim ends off, as well as on, the battlefield. Finds in Britain include the remains of two soldiers probably murdered and clandestinely buried in Canterbury, suggesting local resistance.

What did life in the Roman army look like from a soldier's perspective? What did their families make of life in the fort? How did the newly-conquered react? Legion explores life in settled military communities from Scotland to the Red Sea through the people who lived it.

Ah the delights of London, not quite as I remember it from my youth growing up in and around the city, but still very familiar, with Lord Nelson and the Duke on duty in Trafalgar Square.

We pre-booked our tickets for the exhibition and were very pleased we did as our visit was on a Saturday with lots of folks in town for the FA Cup semi-finals, the usual demonstrators, and those just visiting the museum, and so we were able to avoid the queues and sail past the security check-in desk to grab a tea and bun before heading in.

It was great to see that the exhibition was set up to cater for all ages and especially the younger history buffs among us, and as we know kids, and even the big kids like me, just love to handle stuff and so before going in, I took the time to chat to the lady hosting the exhibit handling desk, with lots of interesting fun facts and artefacts, with the denarius seen below immediately grabbing my attention and allowing me to enjoy the experience of imagining what these coins might have witnessed in the last 2,000 years.

Service and Reward
Under Augustus's successors, non citizens gained citizens rights after 25 to 26 years military service. Seen below is the earliest known example of a retirement 'diploma'. It records emperor Claudius's grant of citizenship to Spartacus Dipscurtus, a Thracian who served as a marine at Misenum, in the Bay of Naples, Italy, with his rights of citizenship extended to his wife and children

Diploma in copper-alloy from Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples, Italy, circa 52 AD.

A Family Business
The benefits of a military career passed down the family line, with a father earning citizenship acting as a reference for sons seeking to join the elite legions.

This memorial possibly shows a father, flanked by his sons, holding their pila and rectangular scutum, signs of their legionary status.

Sandstone, Croy Hill Fort, North Lanarkshire, Scotland Mid 100 AD.


Auxiliaries were the units intended for non-citizen troops to support citizen legions.

Firmus Ecconis died aged 36 while serving an an auxiliary foot soldier, armed with a simple thrusting spear and oval shield. He earned less than a legionary but still flaunts his accumulated wealth with this impressive tombstone featuring Fuscus the enslaved child (left) and Firmus' son (right).

Limestone, Andernach, Germany, circa 1-100 AD

Instead of money, retiring auxiliaries were awarded valuable Roman citizenship, and had Firmus lived, both he and his son would have benefitted.

Swearing the Oath
After basic training, recruits took the sacramentum depicted on the coin. The oath marked their full commitment to 25 years' military service.

An oath-breaker was considered cursed, but the legal repercussions were even more serious with the military law enforcing a strict code that meant beating or even execution for those who broke their bond.

Oath-taking scene with soldiers placing swords on a sacrificial piglet.
Oath-takers swore to endure; 'Through burning, imprisonment or death by the sword'.
Gold, Rome, Italy, 225 - 212 BC

Medical discharge, retirement or death in service were the only honourable means of escape.

Battle Training
The soldiers were trained in close and distance combat, wielding wooden weapons and trading blows against wooden posts and targets.

Practice weapons were intentionally heavier to strengthen muscles and could be used against a simple post, while missile weapons needed larger targets.

The distinctive square holes in the ox scull seen below were made by artillery bolts, whilst the human shaped wooden target was reused as flooring after damage to the shoulder, possibly from military training, leaving subsequent scars to be made by multiple hobnailed boots.

Target and sword: wood, Carlisle, Cumbria, England, 72-83 AD
Animal bone: Vindolanda Fort, Northumberland, England, 85 - 410 AD

Sensible Shoes, Dressing the Part and Protection of Assets.

Soldiers march, struggling with their heavy kit, with packs weighing around sixty pounds and shields at least twelve pounds. A centurion has dismounted to thrash an out of step soldier - Peter Connolly

Marching was fundamental to soldiering and so footwear needed to be practical and hardwearing. The leather sandal and boot are rare survivals and illustrate the hobnails (metal studs) designed to help the soles grip rough ground and withstand long marches.

Terentianus saved money by sending home for gear, recounting receiving a tunic and felt socks.

The examples below are from Egypt, made hundreds of years later and show how little Roman clothing basics changed over tine. The sleeveless tunic with traditional red stripes was worn gathered with a belt, and the red woollen socks have a split toe for flipflop-style sandals.

Tunic (at back): linen and wool, Egypt 400 - 600 AD

Leather strips could break and rub, but Terentianus quickly found laces preferable to buttons, and he wore socks with his sandals and needed to replace his footwear twice monthly.

Boot: leather and iron, Vindolanda Fort, Northumberland, England, 85 - 410 AD

When marines wanted a shoe allowance due to constant marching between Rome and the Bay of Naples, emperor Vespasian famously issued an order for them to march barefoot.

Sandal: leather and iron, London England, 43 - 410 AD
Sock: wool, Egypt, 200 - 500 AD

New soldiers needed kitting out but had to purchase their own uniform and equipment.

Rather than having to buy what he termed a 'battle sword', Terentianus was sent one from his home, probably a foot soldier's short sword or gladius, about twenty inches long, and held in a scabbard encased in an outer leather sheath.

Leather: Vindolanda Fort, Northumberland, England, 85 - 410 AD.

The sword sheath seen above is a rare survival from the military fort at Vindolanda near Hadrian's Wall.

Regular Pay
A steady income was a big draw for recruits, with soldiers receiving regular pay, including expenses for their journey to join up.

Wages had to cover purchases of arms, armour and other equipment, and troops were encouraged to open savings accounts.

Bronze and Silver: Birdoswald Fort, Cumbria, England, after 122 AD

The purse seen above was buried at a fort and contains twenty-seven silver coins (denarii), over a month's pay for a legionary.

Terentianus remarked of army life:
' . . . nothing can be done without money . . . '

The army kept detailed lists of new soldiers, and the list seen below on the left records six recruits to an infantry cohort of auxiliaries based in Egypt, enrolled by administrative officer Avidius Arrian.

Included for each soldier is their name, age and any distinctive physical details - one has a mark on his eyebrow, another on his left hand and a third on his forehead.

Papyrus: Left: Al-Bahnasa (ancient Oxyrhynchus), Egypt, after 103 AD. Right: Egypt 105-6 AD

The other list seen on the right details new recruits, promotions, losses and absentees for a combined infantry and cavalry auxiliary cohort based in Egypt.

All at Sea
Mastery of the Mediterranean Sea that the empire encircled allowed Romans to use this and navigable rivers for transporting goods and people. Soldiers covering vast distances to reach postings could also take ship.

Figureheads on ships go back a long long time as evidenced by this depiction of the Goddess Minerva that would have originally adorned the ram of a Roman warship recovered from a vessel that was scrapped after participating in the Battle of Actium 31 BC that decided the fate of the Roman Republic.

Ship Fitting: Bronze, Prevenza, Greece about 31 BC

The small piece of pottery from a lamp fragment, seen below, and often featuring in books on the subject, illustrates such a bow ram adornment on a Roman warship from this period and shows Roman marines aboard.

Lamp: terracotta, Faiyum, Egypt, 1-100 AD

Roman Roads
The empire's network of roads connected lands, peoples and military outposts and travel was an essential part of soldiering.

Troops faced hard labour building and maintaining roads and the mile stone above declares 'eight miles to Kanovium (Conwy, north Wales) and was erected one year before emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122 AD and probably was part of an effort to present him with evidence of a well-maintained infrastructure.

Introducing Apion

The letters of an Egyptian marine, Apion a non-citizen, who lived during the AD 100's have survived recounting his joining a lowly auxiliary unit and recounting his distant posting to the Bay of Naples in Italy via a turbulent sea crossing.

Although at his basic rank he had no rights to a married life, Apion started an unofficial family, and being ambitious knew that his ability to read and write offered him a path to promotion.

Writing to his father and sister, telling them of his wife, Aufidia, and son Maximus, he also proclaims his adoption of his Roman name, Antonius Maximus, sending them a portrait of himself.

The two portraits shown are illustrative only and were in fact made to cover the wrappings of Romano-Egyptian mummies and paired on the grounds of style, it being unknown whether the pair are siblings or spouses.

Despite their refined appearance and her fine jewellery, the orientation of his sword suggests he is a soldier of low rank.  

The Herculaneum Soldier
In 79 AD Vesuvius erupted, destroying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing thousands of people.

Reconstructed Picture from "Pompeii Reconstructed" @ 2016 by Archeolibri S.R.L, Roma, Italy.

Excavations in the 1980's revealed over 300 skeletons of victims who failed to escape the eruption, with many more blasted into the sea and most of the women, children and elderly sheltered in the towns' arched storage vaults.

Among the bodies of beach evacuees at Herculaneum was a Roman soldier, who was likely helping people to safety.

Human Bones: Herculaneum, Italy, 79 AD

For nearly 2,000 years, Skeleton Number 26 lay facedown, with one arm stretched out as if to break his fall. He was probably knocked down by the blast that killed him and everyone else on the beach.

Perhaps a marine from the nearby naval base, the man was over 35 when he died and likely nearing the end of his service.

At five foot eight inches he was around the minimum height for army recruitment and he displays evidence of heavy musculature on his bones hinting at an active lifestyle.

Parts of Skeleton Number 26’s armour, along with weapons and a leather knapsack, survived nearly 2,000 years of burial, and which included a leather belt decorated with plates of gold and silver. He carried a finely crafted sword with an ornate ivory hilt and a correspondingly elegant dagger. And mingled with his bones, archaeologists found 12 silver and two gold Roman denarii, which would have added up to three or four times the monthly pay of an average enlisted soldier in Rome’s Legions.

All together, those accoutrements mark him as a military officer with rank and status—and the wealth to show it off.

In a leather knapsack, the man carried a set of carpenter’s tools. That detail seems to clash with the sword, dagger, and armour, unless the dead man was a faber navalis, or master carpenter. If so, he would have been something like engineering officers aboard modern naval vessels, both a naval leader and a highly advanced technical specialist.

Bread and Circuses: Guarding the Grain Supply and Working the Colosseum
Marines guarded Rome's grain supply, shipped from Egypt to the Bay of Naples and ports at the mouth of the River Tiber, near Rome. As a marine, Terentianus was based in Alexandria, at the start of the supply chain.

Brass and Copper, Rome, Italy, 191 AD

This medallion above shows emperor Commodus standing by a lighthouse to welcome the grain fleets, highlighting the importance of maintaining the capital's food supply and the need to pacify the restless people of Rome with free bread and circuses.

Coin: copper alloy, Rome, Italy, 223 AD

Marines were also responsible for shading amphitheatre spectators from the hot sun by unfurling sail-like awnings illustrated above on the masts that stick out around the top of Rome's Colosseum, which to the right also shows a gladiator contest.

Bust: marble, probably Rome, Italy, about 185-90 AD 

Emperors sought popularity by staging, and in the case of emperor Commodus depicted above in marble, even participating in gladiatorial combats at the Colosseum reputed to have faced down a riotous Colosseum crowd by commanding his military stagehands to slaughter them. 

A Literate Soldier
Soldiers like Terentianus who could write home understood they had an essential skill which provided opportunities for promotion.

Stone: Mainz-Weisenau, Germany 1-100 AD

The inscription on the soldiers tombstone, seen above, has been lost, but depicted holding a tablet or scroll, he was keen to show that he too could read, and is depicted wearing the usual everyday military attire of tunic, cloak, sandals and military belt with gladius and pugio.

Carrying the Standard
Pintaius Pedilici was an auxiliary from Iberia (Spain and Portugal) and a standard bearer (signifier) in the 5th Asturian cohort.

He died on the Rhine Frontier aged 30, after seven years service and is depicted on his tombstone seen below wearing his rank distinguishing animal pelt hood and carrying his standard adorned with roundels and other decorations.

Stone: Bonn, Germany, 31-70 AD

He wears his short sword or gladius and pugio or dagger on a belt around his military tunic.

Marching with the Emperor
A specialist standard bearer, the imaginifer, carried the image of the emperor at the head of the cohort.

Genialis Clusiodi was an imaginifer of the 7th cohort of Raetians (an Alpine people) who died aged 35. 

Stone: Mainz, Germany, 41-68 AD

His standard is topped with a bust of an emperor, perhaps Claudius or Nero, and he holds a scroll, with his animal pelt hood draped around his neck 

A Young Centurion
The tombstone, honouring Marcus Favonius Facilis of the 20th Legion, was set up in Colchester, England, by his freed slaves, with stone imported from France.

It is a striking effigy of a young centurion, shown with his commander's cloak and holding his vine rod of office. 

Tombstone: Plaster cast, 1800-1900

Facilis likely served in the 43 AD invasion of Britain, but his career was cut short before he received any military decorations, and his tombstone was toppled when Queen Boudica razed Colchester in 60 or 61 AD.

The temple of Claudius was destroyed in 60/61 AD by Queen Boadicea's army, when, according to the Roman commentator Tacitus, 30,000 Romans lost their lives. Many had barricaded themselves inside the temple in the vain hope that they might survive the attack.

Facilis's cremated remains were placed inside the lead cannister, accompanied by a glass vessel and ceramic cup seen below.

Grave goods: lead, glass ceramic, Colchester, Essex, England, 50-60 AD

An Older Centurion
The following monument was raised for Marcus Caelius, a high-ranking and highly decorated centurion of the 18th legion who died aged 53 in the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, as his monument records 'fell in the war of Varus'.

He earned thirty times an ordinary legionary's wages and is shown wearing a harness of medals, bracelets and torcs on his shoulders.

Stone replica: Bonn, Germany, late 1800s early 1900s
Original: 9 AD

His most significant military decoration is an oak wreath crown, awarded for saving the lives of his fellow Roman citizens, and he is flanked by his freedmen, Privatus and Thiaminus, enslaved men liberated by their wealthy master's death.

I first saw this remarkable monument, like that of Pintaius on a visit to the Xanten, LVR Archaeological Park & Roman Museum in 2017, link above.

Military Jewellery and Decorations
Military decorations were awarded to citizen-soldiers based on rank as well as ability, whereas non-citizen auxiliaries were unlikely to receive them at all.

Bracelets were usually given in pairs, with the three adjustable bracelets seen above, recovered at Colchester as part of a hoard, alongside other jewellery and coins. likely buried just before Boudica's attack against this settlement of largely retired Roman soldiers, the owner never able to return to recover them.

Phalarae - medal like decorations - could be worn as pendants, clipped onto belts or displayed as sets on a soldier's body harness. The large silver phalarae seen above was from a set decorating a chest harness and features the Roman god Jupiter.

Agripina the Elder

Some were mass produced using coloured glass moulded discs set in bronze frames, often bearing the images of the imperial family to signify a soldier's loyalty.

Agripina's husband Germanicus and their three children.

Request for Transfer
Terentianus was proud to sign himself 'a soldier of the legion' once he had made the transfer from the marines, but cavalry was a coveted role that could even attract legionaries.

Papyrus: Al-Bahnasa (ancient Oxyrhynchus), Egypt, 200-300 AD

In the letter above, Pausanias explains that his legionary son is unhappy as an infantryman, preferring to serve in the cavalry, with Pausanias keen enough to press his son's request that he himself travelled to Alexandria in Egypt, where his legion was based, to plead for the transfer in person.

A Triumphant Cavalryman
Owning a horse was expensive and therefore prestigious, infantry centurions and officers of noble birth had their own mounts.

The sarcophagus fragment seen below depicts the deceased as an aristocratic horseman, armoured with a senior officers breastplate, and ready to strike with a (now broken off) weapon.

Marble: Probably Rome, Italy, about 180-220 AD

Shown in the classic cavalry battle role, he supports foot soldiers, mopping-up after the enemies ranks are broken, with one such enemy tumbling under the riders' hoofs while the infantryman puts another to the sword.

Cavalry Kit and Horse Armour
This bronze cavalry helmet has a sturdy iron lining, but is also richly decorated-luxury armour providing ornament together with the best protection.

Helmet: Silvered bronze, Cambridgeshire, England, 43-100 AD

Originally some areas were tinned, creating a silvery contrast to the yellowish bronze, and as seen below, cavalry helmets had short neck guards, to prevent neck injury in the event of a fall from the saddle.

Romans did not use stirrups, instead relying on saddle horns at each corner of the saddle, covered in leather, was used to keep the charging cavalryman firmly seated.

Silvered Bronze: Xanten, Germany, about 50 AD

These elaborate fittings adorned a warhorse, an extension of the showy kit of its well-off rider, and the harness straps connected through about sixty silver plated roundels, at the centre of which is a bust of the emperor Nero, or possibly Claudius.

It is marked with names of owner(s) serving under 'Pliny, prefect of cavalry', probably referring to the famous writer and aristocratic soldier Pliny the Elder, who died leading the rescue attempt when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

I took pictures of the Roman cavalry manikin when visiting the Corinium Museum in Cirencester back in 2018, which gives a good depiction of how these warriors might have appeared on the battlefield.

JJ's Wargames - Corinium Dobunnorum, (Cirencester), Cotswolds 2018

Camel Cavalry
The cavalry unit of the Lusitanian (Portuguese or Spanish) cohort stationed in Egypt rode camels as well as horses.

This little lead camel was probably a toy.
Lead: Egypt, about 1-100 AD

Non-citizen auxiliary cohorts were usually raised in the Roman provinces from a specific ethnic group, but were often redeployed across the empire where new recruits were sourced locally, likely accounting for camel riders (dromedarii), a speciality in Egypt, , joining the Lusitanian ranks.

Draco, the Dragon Standard
By the AD 100's, a distinctive windsock-like standard especially suited to being wielded from the saddle had been adopted from Rome's Sarmatian foes, the draco.

The bronze standard head below, originally had a tube of colourful materials attached and would have been carried by a draconarius, the material trailing behind the rider, blown by the breeze and emitting a whistling sound to suggest the fearsome beast's howl.

Bronze: Niederbieber, Germany, 190-260 AD

Its pole was attached through two holes on the top and bottom of the head.

Cavalry Parade Helmets
There is some debate as to how Roman cavalry used these impressive helmets, with most opinion concluding that the restricted visibility to the wearer likely rendered their wearing to parade use rather than in battle.
The three helmets displayed in the picture below illustrate three distinct styles, from left to right, Amazon, Greek and Trojan.

The cavalry parade helmet below is the Amazon, representing a woman's face, its wearer re-gendered like a masked classical actor to probably represent a legendary Amazon warrior, a common motif in classical art depicting battles between Greeks and Amazons, and cavalry sports teams seemingly re-enacted them on the parade ground.

Only the front half survives.
Bronze: Italy, 100-200 AD

Rendered in the guise of a classical warrior, the Greek style helmet below is crowned with city walls, a Roman decoration awarded to the first soldier over the enemy fortifications in a siege assault, and perhaps used here to denote a Greek besieging Troy.

The flamboyant helmet originally comprised silvered 'flesh' parts framed with polished bronze curls, topped with a crest and plumes, and was recovered in a hoard of cavalry equipment including backing plates for a set of medals worn on the riders chest.

Copper alloy: Ribchester, Lancashire, England, 74-150 AD 

The third and final example below is a helmet in the Trojan style, depicting the youthful face of a Trojan with curly hair, wearing the traditional 'Phrygian cap', and is one of the finest and most complete cavalry parade helmets ever found, with the skin area still silvered, and the curls originally contrasted in bronze.

It is thought it was likely a prized possession of a skilled cavalryman in one of the regiments stationed on Britain's northern frontier.

Copper alloy: Crosby Garrett, Cumbria, England, 100-250 AD

Setting the Standard - Loyalty and Imperial Worship
As well as being rallying points, standards were proud symbols of legion and cohort identity, with standards decorated with roundels and depictions of military awards, showcasing the prowess, success or loyalty of the troops.

Emperor worship, or the imperial cult, was a cornerstone of the Roman empire, and Special standard bearers (imaginifiers) proudly carried the image of the emperor into battle; however mutinous troops might tear down the imperial image from standards in a show of defiance, as happened to emperor Galba (ruled 68-9 AD) during his downfall in what became known as 'The Year of the Four Emperor's', with the fall of Nero and the eventual rise of Vespasian.

Silver: Herculaneum, Italy, 79 AD

The battered silver bust of Galba, seen above, once topped a pole, possibly as a standard.

Roundel: silver, Niederbieber, Germany, 1-50 AD
Backing Plate: bronze, Scotland, 80-180 AD

Animals could be used as a unit badge, with the standard above and in close up below being topped by a charging boar and below it, in the picture above, an elaborate silvered roundel showing a general, perhaps the future emperor Tiberius, in military dress, triumphant amongst captives and weapons, whilst bottom right is a bronzed backing plate used to hold busts of images such as the emperor.

Boar: bronze, Italy, 100 BC - 300AD

Instruments of War
Trumpeters were the extension of the centurion's vocal commands, relaying his orders over the din of marching and battle.

Cornu: brass, Pompee, Italy, 79 AD

Cornicines played the most important instrument, a long curled horn called a cornu and like the standard bearers, who used their standards to present visual commands, also wore fierce animal pelt hoods.

Starts and stops in marching were generally thought to have been signalled by a shorter straight horn, or tuba, and below, a little rodent trumpeter covers his ear as he plays his perhaps loud tuba.

Figurine: copper alloy, Findspot unknown, 43-410 AD

Military Metalsmiths - Repair, Recycle and Reuse
Armourers were skilled immunes, basic grade soldiers exempt from many peacetime chores, but still expected to drill and fight.

Evidence suggests large scale production, with a surviving manifest from a military armoury in Egypt listing legionaries, their servants and possibly auxiliary soldiers hard at work, with ten long swords being made in a day, while on another bows, artillery parts and two different shield types were produced.

Blacksmithing Kit, Iron: Waltham Abbey, Epping Forest, Essex, England, 50 BC - 50 AD

A fort armoury at Carlisle made the equipment displayed here.

The Roman blacksmithing kit was relatively simple, comprising anvils, hammers, tongs, punches and chisels, although arms-making was a specialist form of blacksmithing, with iron and bronze hammered over anvil, and the metal heated and softened using tongs.

Bronze armour fittings required finer tools, and the military workshops also made decorative metalwork, hammering sheets into moulds and dies and casting, punching and chiselling to ornament arms and armour.

The collar of fine scales

The scraps of two different types of body armour, spearhead and shin guard come from the workshop of a fort on Hadrian's Wall, and attest to valuable military equipment being repaired and recycled rather than discarded.

The collar of fine scales was originally stitched onto a leather or textile garment and combines three rows in iron and bronze for decorative contrast with extra riveting for lateral strength.

Shin Guard

The iron segmented armour is from a shoulder plate, its bronze hinge and fittings still attached.

Shoulder Plate

Locally Sourced
Roman soldiers could obtain kit from local civilian craftsmen, with Roman and native techniques influencing one another, leading to the emergence of new distinctive artistic styles.

Copper alloy: Findspot unknown, 50-150 AD

The helmet pictured above, combines a Roman shape with Celtic style decoration on the back, whilst the sword below appears to be a Roman form, similarly modified by the addition of decorative Celtic style fittings to the handle.

Iron and copper alloy: Hod Hill, Dorset, England, 1-100 AD.

Both these items are from Britain and perhaps their owners were Roman soldiers native to the areas where those styles originated.

Standard Early Imperial Issue
Helmets like the ones below were standard issue before the reign of Augustus, having a hemispherical cap with side-plume holder tubes, and flat neck and brow guards.

Copper alloy helmet: Walbrook, London, England 1-100 AD
Side Arms
Daggers (pugio) were side arms and general purpose tools and the brass and red enamel geometric inlay of the one seen below makes it unusually fancy.

Short swords (gladius) were specialised stabbing weapons as illustrated above, held poised alongside the shield(scutum) in preparation for delivering a killing blow, and standard issue for Roman soldiers.

Item 4 - Pugio, Iron and bronze and enamel inlay: River Ehine at Mainz, Germany, 1-100 AD
Item 5. Gladius, Iron and bronze, River Thames at Fulton, England, 43-75 AD

The gladius above has a leaf-shaped blade, and a scabbard decorated with the wolf-and-twins emblem of Rome and the weapon was traditionally worn on the right with the weapon being drawn using an inverted downward grip, the other hand used to hold the scutum, and with the pugio carried on the left side of the belt.

Centurions and noble senior officers were permitted to wear their gladius on the left and serves as a ready identifier of rank when looking at monuments and tombstones.

Iron and bronze with gilding and tinning: Mainz, Germany, 14-19 AD

The ornate sword and scabbard seen above, rich with imperial imagery, was perhaps an official gift or reward and on it can be seen emperor Tiberius posing as Jupiter, flanked by Victory and Mars, receiving a statuette of victory from his general (and nephew) Germanicus, who cedes credit for his military success to the emperor, according to strict imperial protocol. The first emperor, Augustus, is depicted in the roundel below. 

Iron, bronze, wood and bone: House of the gladiators, Pompeii, Italy, about 79 AD

By the time of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD, a new form of Roman short sword appeared with parallel-sided blades that probably offered improved stabbing power, and exemplified by the one seen above with a wooden scabbard covered in leather and would have been the type of battle weapon familiar to Claudius Terentianus.

Body Armour
A cuirass is body armour made to cover a soldiers torso, with the example below illustrating parts of the segmented cuirass typically worn by legionaries, and is part of an armourers hoard.

Iron and copper alloy: Corbridge, Northumberland, England, 50-100 AD

The iron back and breast plate together with shoulder protection offered solidity combined with flexibility and the protection was afforded by forty articulated plates fixed with straps and hinges. Although this type of armour is traditionally associated with legionary cohorts as depicted on monuments such as Trajan's Column, seen below, recent discoveries of military equipment at auxiliary bases suggest auxiliaries might have used this armour as well.

Roman auxiliary infantry (left) and legionary infantry (right) depicted on Trajan's column in Rome display the two types of common body armour, with the auxiliaries typically seen in chainmail and the legionaries in the iconic segmented cuirass.

The deceptively simple looking armour seen in the two pictures below is a complete chainmail shirt, found in the barracks of a fort on Hadrian's Wall, and it probably belonged to a soldier of the 5th cohort of Gauls, an auxiliary unit raised in the area including modern France.

Iron: Arbeia , South Shields Roman Fort, Tyne and Wear, England, 200-300 AD

The individual rings are 7mm wide and were fixed by riveting alternate rows, making it and extremely painstaking and expensive item to produce.

Some Roman soldiers participated in local religions with crocodile worship being common in Egypt, and Terentianus was keen to report his piety.

Crocodile leather: probably from Manfalut, Egypt, 200-400 AD

This crocodile scalp and armoured skin, seen above, might have been used as additional leather body armour, perhaps to be worn under the metal cuirass to help cushion it or indeed worn similarly to scale armour, and the scalp hood may have adorned a Roman style helmet very similar to the use of bear hoods worn by Roman standard bearers, however its definite use remains a mystery.

The Best Protection
Segmental armour developed over time, and the example below has fewer exposed hinges and fittings, to avoid them becoming damaged during battle.

Helmet - Bronze: Niedermormter, Germany, Late AD 100s-200s
Armour - Iron: Newstead Fort, Scottish Borders, Scotland, AD 100-200

From the same Scottish findspot as the body armour is this armoured sleeve, inspired by the sword arm protection used by Roman gladiators and together with an armour piercing javelin (pilum), a straight-edged short sword, and a helmet with fully developed neck protection this late AD 100s legionary look is complete.

The magnificently preserved helmet shows the most developed protective features of Roman military headgear, with extra cross-braced reinforcing strips protecting the skull and the deepest style neck guard protecting the neck.

The handle, just seen on the edge of the neck guard made it easier to hand carry or sling over the shoulder during a long march and the wide protective cheek pieces are the only feature missing, from this superb piece carrying the name of its owner, Lucius Sollonius Super of the 30th legion.
Pilum Head: Iron, Hod Hill, Dorset, England, 43-75 AD

Editors Note: Items from Hod Hill in Dorset feature a few times in this exhibition and it reminded me the Mr Steve and myself visited this very interesting site back in 2019, link below:

JJ's Wargames - Romans, Giants, Hill-forts and Redcoats, JJ's & Mr Steve's Dorset Walk

Roman soldiers fought with the short sword and pilum, the latter thrown at the enemy before contact, hopefully disrupting the enemy formation, and creating gaps for close-quarters attack with sword and shield.

Roman troops depicted fighting in the Dacian Wars are seen with the extra protective armour illustrated above to. it's thought, help them to afford better protection from fearsome cutting weapons such as the Dacian falx, often used to slice down on an unprotected sword arm or a less well protected older style helmet.

Pilum shanks were around 24 to 36 inches long and their pyramid shaped heads could punch and follow through an opponents shield, and it is thought that auxiliaries and perhaps marines relied on simple thrusting spears instead as exemplified by, Terentianus who, while serving in the marines, sent home for 'two of the best spears obtainable'

Sword: Iron, East Sussex, England, 100-200 AD

The short sword above has a distinctive integral ring pommel, a type used by soldiers in Germany and Britain.

I will finish Part One of this post here and pick up things in Part Two, which will conclude this review of the exhibition and will have links to the other key Roman sites and exhibitions visited over the years here on JJ's for those who might like to dig a bit deeper into this very interesting period of World history.

More anon


  1. Always great fun. Years ago I went out with a Greek girl who died far too young. Half a lifetime ago Her grandfather had already been shot by the British in the shenanigans which obtained towards the end of the Second World War. I am surprised she loved me. It was like sleeping with history. Always a pleasure dear boy.

  2. Hello and glad you enjoyed the read.

    I think the Romans are an intriguing contradiction, in that you get a sense that you understand them and their mindset when you see how they organised themselves and the lives of those folks, simply doing their best for them and theirs, sharing birthday part invites and looking forward to a life in retirement, though often a fairly short one, and then you see the brutal reality of life in their world and wonder if the parallels stand the test.

    On reflection though, when you see what's going on in the world in Ukraine and all the political nonsense there and elsewhere, perhaps we're not much better than the Roman's after all, just more technically advanced and better able to cause greater problems.

    So hopefully, those of us who pursue and promote the finer things in life will overcome and leave the world a better place than the one we found.