Roman Legionaries: Armour

The Roman legions won their formidable reputation not only thanks to organization and discipline, excellent training and courage of the soldiers, but also excellent weapons and armour. Each warrior was clad in iron and bronze from head to toe, so that the order of the legions, according to Vegetius, resembled an iron wall approaching the enemy.

The armour protected the warriors well from the blows of weapons, and they could even fight alone against many enemies. One of the most common types of Roman armour was chain mail. Combining high strength, flexibility and lightness, it remained in service with the Romans until the very end of their state.

Bronze Age Armour

The first elements of defensive weapons appeared in the Bronze Age and by the beginning of classical antiquity developed into a fairly perfect complex of defensive weapons, which included a shell to protect the body and additional elements to protect the shoulders, arms, hips and legs. Compared to the shield, which reliably deflected most of the blows directed at it, the armour had less stability, and it was often pierced by strong weapon blows. However, in hand-to-hand combat the warrior reflected most of the blows with a shield, and the armour was supposed to increase the degree of overall protection of a person in battle. Its purpose was to parry random and untargeted strikes, as well as to deter weapons that penetrated the shield or bypassed it. Modern statistics clearly show that wearing armour significantly reduced the number of wounds received in battle and, consequently, reduced the loss of manpower. In addition, the armour and the protection it provided had an exceptionally strong effect on the psychology of the fighter, dramatically increasing his aggressiveness and suppressing his fear.

Stele found at Glanum, group of legionnaires in training – Exhibited at the Gallo-Roman museum of Fourvière – Lyon

The hoplite phalanx in ancient times consisted of warriors who had not only a large shield, but also dressed in armour. Only a fully protected fighter could fight in the first line and serve as a reliable support for his neighbours in the ranks. The state carefully monitored that citizens liable for military service did not save on protective weapons, and applied penalties to the guilty. If necessary, these weapons were replenished from reserve stocks. In the Roman army, the loss of armour was considered a serious crime, and their sale to the side was equated with desertion. The late author Vegetius, who lived at the very end of the 4th century, noted with the greatest disapproval the refusal of infantrymen from defensive weapons and called for the revival of the ancient practice of training with heavy weapons:

From the foundation of the city till the reign of the Emperor Gratian, the foot wore cuirasses and helmets. But negligence and sloth having by degrees introduced a total relaxation of discipline, the soldiers began to think their armour too heavy, as they seldom put it on. They first requested leave from the Emperor to lay aside the cuirass and afterwards the helmet. In consequence of this, our troops in their engagements with the Goths were often overwhelmed with their showers of arrows. Nor was the necessity of obliging the infantry to resume their cuirasses and helmets discovered, notwithstanding such repeated defeats, which brought on the destruction of so many great cities.

Vegetius. De Re Militari, I, 20
Fresco from the synagogue of Dura-Europos depicting the scene of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Warriors wear chain mail and shields, modeled on contemporary Roman weapons of the 3rd century AD. National Museum of Damascus.


The term lorica, widely known today, comes from Latin and in the most general sense means protective armour – regardless of its device or method of wearing. For example, Pliny the Elder called statua loricata bronze figures of emperors and generals dressed in armour. Judging by the appearance of the statues that have survived to our time, these were all-metal shells covered with chased ornaments. Cicero wrote about bronze armour and helmets (loricas agleasque) of Corinthian work with dedicatory inscriptions applied to them. According to Suetonius, the emperor Galba wore a linen armour (lorica lintea) for protection. From other sources, descriptions of lorica made of plates (lamina) or scales (squama) fitted to each other, which were worn by both the Romans themselves and their allies, and their opponents, are known.

Standard-bearers and musicians on Trajan’s Column in Rome

In a specific sense, the term lorica means mail. The Roman antiquary and grammarian Marcus Terrentius Varro, explaining the origin and meaning of the term, deduced the origin of the word lorica from lorum – “belt”:

because it was made to protect the chest from leather belts. After the Gallic shell was introduced into use, the shirt made of iron rings also began to be called.

Marcus Terrentius Varro

He was echoed by another grammarian – Isidore of Seville:

The armour ( lorica ) is so named because it does not have a belt ( lorum ) and consists only of iron rings interlocked with one another.”

Obviously, both under this term understood chain mail. The poet Lucan called chain mail “a shell of chains” (lorica catenas) and spoke of it as a reliable protection of the body. The term lorica hamata, widely used today among reenactors, is a neologism that appeared no earlier than the 16th century.

A rare relief depiction of mail armour on a Ludovisi sarcophagus from the middle of the 3rd century AD. As a rule, Roman artists did not reproduce the texture of the armour, but painted the stone surface. Palazzo Altemps, Rome.

Gallic shell

Pliny the Elder considered the invention of lorica to be the merit of a certain Media from Messene, but armour in general is clearly meant here, and not its specific variety. Terentius Varro, in the fragment quoted above, attributed the invention of chain mail to the Gauls and directly called it “Gallic armour”. The fact that the Gauls wore mail armour was written by the Greek authors Diodorus Siculus and Strabo, but the source of their information dates back to a later time.

Probably one of the oldest archaeological finds of chain mail in Europe can be considered a swamp treasure from Hjörtspring in Denmark, which dates back to about 350 BC. Archaeologists found here a large layer of iron rust, and in it – many small rings with a diameter of 0.6 to 1 cm. The find area was about 24 m². There were from 10 to 20 chain mail, possibly torn to pieces. The armour itself was not preserved.

Fragments of two chain mail, along with the famous “bird” helmet, were found in the burial of a Celtic leader from the beginning of the 3rd century BC. from the Romanian city of Kiumesti. One of them consisted of alternating rows of stamped and butted iron rings. In the second chain mail, half of the rings were stamped, half were riveted. The diameter of the rings was approximately 8 mm. In its cut, the chain mail must have resembled a Greek linen armour without sleeves and with cape-shaped shoulders to protect the upper part of the body. A three-blade bronze buckle has been preserved, which fastened two blades of a chain mail cape on the chest.

There are other finds as well. Almost completely preserved Gallic chain mail of the 2nd century BC. was discovered in Switzerland. By the 1st century BC. refers to a fragment of chain mail from the Gallic settlement of Bern.

Chained Legions

Polybius, describing the Roman army in the middle of the 2nd century BC, mentioned that the richest Romans wore chain mail, whose qualification exceeded 10,000 drachmas. Judging by the contemporary description of the reliefs of the victorious monument of Lucius Aemilius Paul from Delphi, the Roman chain mail of this time reached the upper part of the hips in length and was equipped with a shoulder pad like a linen shell. The blades of these mantles went from the back to the chest and here they were fastened with a bronze hook. Most likely, the pauldron was hemmed with leather from the inside – otherwise it would hardly have been able to keep its characteristic shape. The leather lining also had to provide additional weather protection.

The question of whether chain mail was worn over special under armour clothing is still not completely resolved. Detailed image of the form and cut of chain mail of the second half of the 1st century BC. provides a Gallo-Roman statue of a warrior from Vacher, which must be a representation of a Romanized Gaul, possibly the leader of the Gallic auxiliaries in Roman service.

Statue of a Gallic warrior from Vasher. Museum of Avignon.

Although it follows from the above words of Polybius that as early as the middle of the 2nd century BC. chain mail remained the property of the wealthiest Roman soldiers, in the future it began to become more and more widespread in the army. Monumental monuments from the end of the 2nd-1st century BC, including reliefs on the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus from Rome, steles from Osuna in Spain, and triumphal arches from Glanum, Arelat and Orange in Southern France, dating back to the end of the 1st century BC AD – the beginning of the 1st century AD, they demonstrate Roman soldiers for the most part dressed in chain mail. A similar picture is presented on the pictorial monuments of the imperial era. Probably, this was facilitated by the increasingly centralized supply of weapons and armour to the army, the production of which, according to the state order, was carried out by a network of weapons workshops, and then they went to storage in the arsenal. Entering the army, the soldier received weapons from the warehouse, and their cost was gradually deducted from the salary. The spread of this model contributed to the saturation of the army with armour, and the weapons and appearance of the soldiers became more and more uniform.

Roman soldiers on the relief of the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, 1st century BC. Louvre, Paris.

One of the most famous Roman victory monuments of the imperial era, Trajan’s Column in Rome, depicts the legions clad in lamellar armour (lorica segmentata), and the soldiers of the auxiliaries wearing chain mail. Such uniformity of weapons and the division of armour between the branches of the military probably existed only in the imagination of the artist, who tried to present the Roman army to the audience in a more favourable light. In fact, it contained armour of all types that existed at that time. The metopes of the Trophy of Trajan in the Romanian city of Adamiklissi, contemporary to this monument, testify that the legionnaires continued to wear chain mail and scaly armour, as well as bracers and leggings, which the creator of the reliefs of Trajan’s Column ignored. The variety of protective weapons of the Roman troops of the II-III centuries AD.

A scene from the relief of the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome shows the emperor addressing the army. The Emperor addresses his soldiers: ar his side two legates. The soldiers in the foreground at the extreme left wears a linen cuirass; his neighbour one made of scale armour (lorca Squamata) over a military cloak (sagum), The cuirass of the third soldier is made from metallic strips. This indicates a more complex picture of the distribution of armour in the army in comparison with how they are presented on the reliefs of Trajan’s Column.


Complete or partially preserved Roman chain mail of the imperial time comes from finds in Caerleon and Sot Shields (Great Britain), Bertholdsheim, Künzig and Grosskrotzenburg (Germany), Dura-Europos (Syria) and other places. It is believed that the chain mail found in Vimos (Denmark) is also of Roman origin and is an import or a trophy captured during a predatory raid. This chain mail consisted of about 30,000 rings of iron wire about 1 mm thick. The diameter of the rings on average ranged from 0.6 to 1 cm. In comparison with the chain mail of an earlier time, it had a long hem that protected the hips above the knees, and short sleeves up to the elbow. The cut of chain mail resembled a tunic: it was rather wide on the sides, and on top it had a wide open neck, connected at the shoulders with a pair of buckles.

Mail from Wimose.

For the manufacture of chain mail, a wire about 1 mm thick was used. It was obtained by repeatedly forging and releasing an iron rod in a forge, which was then pulled through cone-shaped holes of gradually decreasing diameter. One armour took about 700 m of wire. First, the wire was wound in a spiral around an iron rod, then removed and cut into separate rings. The wire ends of the rings were brought together and flattened with special tongs, after which they were pierced and fastened with an iron rivet. In other rings, the ends were welded. There were high quality chain mail, half of the rings of which were cut from sheet metal, and half were riveted. For decorative purposes, several rows of bronze rings were sometimes missed along the edge of the sleeves and hem. The production of one chain mail took about 200 man-hours,

The mass of the finished product was 8–9 kg, and this weight was evenly distributed over the body. With minimal training, chain mail can be worn all day long. In comparison with other types of armour, chain mail had high mobility, including in the zone of joints and joints, did not hinder movement at all, was well ventilated and provided its owner with an acceptable degree of protection from enemy weapons. Experiments show that even a very strong chopping blow with a sword or ax cannot pierce chain mail – rings made of soft wire simply bend around the blade, preventing it from penetrating deep. Worse, chain mail protects against blows from crushing weapons, which, if it does not break the chain mail fabric, then causes severe concussion to the internal organs. Finally, mail does not protect against a direct spear strike or a strong stabbing sword. Arrows fired from the bow also easily pierce the chain mail coating at a distance of 50–75 m.

Lorica of Corbridge

The most important key to a reliable reconstruction of Roman armor was the find made by Charles Daniels in Corbridge. Once there was a Roman fort, Corstopitum, which housed ala Gallorum Petriana as a garrison. Around the year 105, barbarian tribes living in the northern part of the island attacked the Roman border fortifications. The camp was badly damaged and was subsequently rebuilt. The builders disposed of part of the garbage at the bottom of the well, which was located on the territory of the Roman principle. During excavations in 1964, six sets of plates relating to the side sections of the shell, two chest sections, shoulder pads, as well as several scattered fragments and small details were found here. Although the iron turned to rust, all the plates remained in place, which made it easy to recreate the original order of their set. On the inside of the plates, there are clearly visible traces of leather belts used as fasteners. Bronze hooks and loops have also been preserved in their original places. Interestingly, all the parts found belonged to different armor. Apparently, they were all stored together somewhere in a warehouse awaiting repair, but for some unknown reason they ended up not in a repair shop, but at the bottom of a well, where they were discovered by archaeologists.

A fragment of the pedestal of the Column of Antoninus Pius in Rome, depicting the scene of the imperial apotheosis. 
Praetorians are dressed in plate armor, in appearance very similar to that in which the figure of a soldier from the British Museum is dressed. 
Unlike archaeological finds, in which the chest section is represented by a single plate, here it consists of several parts.

H. Russell Robinson, Keeper of the Armory of the Tower of London, based on this find, reconstructed Roman armor from Corbridge. According to his assumption, the armor consisted of six parts: a pair of side sections, a pair of sections for the upper chest and back, and a pair of pauldrons, rigidly connected to the previous section. In total, the armor consisted of 40 iron strips and plates, connected in 12 sections with the help of belts riveted to their inner part. Separate sections, in turn, were attached to each other by means of bronze hooks and loops, as well as belts and buckles, some of which were on the inside, and some on the outside. This structure made it easy to disassemble the armor and fold it for transport and storage. Subsequent assembly and dressing was also not particularly difficult. Obviously, the soldier put on the shell assembled on the back, and fastened it in front on his own. The lamellar covering closely adjoined to a body. At the same time, it was flexible and did not constrain movement at all. Such a shell provided its owner with reliable protection against any type of piercing, slashing and throwing weapons.