The Life of the Roman Soldier

Talk on The Life of the Roman Soldier (CAHMS event)

When: to March  2015
Where:Boniface Centre, Church Lane, Crediton
Who:John Smith

More than 50 members and friends of Crediton Area History & Museum Society attended the latest monthly talk on the 9th March in the Boniface Centre. This was given by John Smith – who in his own words is a “very unusual” archaeologist from Shaftesbury, on the subject “The life of the Roman soldier”. The talk was accompanied by many artefacts and for much of the time John wore legionnaires equipment as the photograph illustrates.

John began by discussing our archetypal impression of a Roman soldier as portrayed on TV and in films like Gladiator, wearing segmented plate body armour, shiny helmets with tall red horsehair crests, and red clothing. He said he hoped to enlighten his audience on this by the end of the talk!

Helmets were made of bronze or brass (as worn by John) – or more robustly from iron which could survive a blow from an iron-age sword. Originally they were a copy of the helmet the Gauls used when they fought Caesar, and subsequently improved by the Romans. They had a projecting piece shielded the neck and a smaller ridge fastened at the front for protection of the face. At the sides were large cheek pieces hinged at the top. John’s helmet has no crest and when they were present they were relatively short, and because the Romans did not have a red dye, they were normally black or white.

Romans had three types of armour – ring-mail, segmented and scale-and-nail.

Ring mail armour was standard infantry issue and was made up of thousands of interlinked iron rings, and the armour John can be seen wearing in the photograph took 3 months to make. It weights 12kg and only takes 5 seconds to put on but it is not stab proof. In addition, each legionnaire carried 31kg equipment plus other “impedimenta” (food, clothing, cooking equipment etc).

Segmented armour was made up from 140 separate iron items and was stab proof. It comprised of 2 shoulder units and 2 body units and took at least 90 seconds to put on. Experiments have shown that a horse cannot be ridden wearing segmented armour because Roman saddles had no stirrups. John suggested that artillery men wore segmented armour because this would protect them when the ballista artillery machine (a kind of ground mounted cross bow) disintegrated, which they were apparently prone to do because of the energy stored in them prior to firing. Ballistae bolts were lethal projectiles with a range of 400 yards and each machine could fire 4 per minute.

John described a carved stone Roman monument in Dacia (now part of Romania) and which portrays the Roman legionnaire wearing scale-and-nail armour. This had iron “scales” about the size of a thumb nail sewed together to form the armour, and this tended to be worn by cavalry.

There are a large number of Roman sites in Devon (and at least 4 known in Cornwall) because Devon had very productive agricultural land and large quantities of minerals that the Romans needed – although the Romans bought what they needed unlike later invading armies elsewhere in Europe who simply took what they wanted. Apparently 90% of coins found in Exeter are Roman army forgeries made from melted down helmets and the like so no wonder they didn’t mind paying!


The Roman sword was – believe it or not – a very complex weapon and the blade was made from three different grades of carbon iron. Because they were so costly to make they were fitted with separate hand grips formed to the legionnaire’s hand so the grip could be replaced and the sword re-used. Cavalry swords were a foot longer for greater reach. Daggers on the other hand were much easier to make and because of this were “disposable” individual weapons.

The Pilum was a type of javelin about 2 metres long with a soft iron shaft that bent on impact which meant it could not be thrown back! It had a range of about 30 metres.

The shield that John is carrying in the photo is actually surprisingly light. It is formed from 3 laminations of timber and the central boss conceals a hole cut out to contain the hand grip.

The Romans were apparently surprisingly benevolent and there is said to be no evidence of them fighting with the local population, many of whom regarded themselves as Romans. This didn’t stop the invaders having a garrison of 800 in Exeter however, with 40 legionnaires always fully kitted out! Better safe than sorry!