Monday 3 September 2012

Keeping up appearances

The Romans were around for a long time...from Rome's foundation in 753BC through to its fall in 476AD, that's 1229 years...the same as from 783AD to now. Obviously a lot changes over 1229 years. Just as we don't dress or speak like those living in the Dark Ages or even the Victorians, it's a bit of a stretch by movie makers to have Romans running around in 400AD looking like they did in 50AD - and since most Roman movies involves someone being a Roman soldier, lets take a snapshot at them.

In the 4th-century BC when Sparta and Athens ruled the region, the Roman soldier looked and fought much like the Greeks...wearing short tunics, bronze or leather 'muscled' cuirasses, shin greaves, Greek style crested attic helmets and fought in hoplite formations with round shields. By the 3rd-century BC - with Hannibal rampaging through Italy - the Roman citizen armies had adopted Gallic fighting techniques, with self-funded light infantrymen (meaning they could run faster - and die faster) wearing bronze chest plates over their everyday tunics with a long oblong shield and a bronze montefortino helmet. Those with more money fought as heavy infantry wearing chain mail vests copied from the Gauls. By the 1st-century BC the citizen armies had been replaced by the state-funded legions - which gave up on light infantry and put every soldier in chain mail vests worn over knee-length white tunics, with more sophisticated neck-protecting bronze helmets and the oblong shield. It wasn't until the 1st-century AD  that the legions began equipping with the segmented steel armour (lorica segmentata) that we usually see in the movies. This, along with polished steel helmets, rectangular shields and red tunics changed completely how a Roman soldier looked - it was like comparing an American civil war soldier with those who fought in the Second Gulf War. But just because this was probably the most practical armour ever designed for ancient warfare, even the 'modern' legion didn't stay the same. Within three hundred years and now functioning more as police than an army, the legions had mostly abandoned armour and had adopted crude Intercisa pattern helmets that were cheaper to make - Rome was running out of money and didn't it show. So next time you see someone trying to be a Roman on TV, have a look at what they're wearing and decide for yourself if the director spent more money on special affects than research.

Find out if Calvus ever polished his buttons

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