There is no question that the legions of Rome were well led and trained. They were
similarly well equipped. Whereas the three ranks of the
legion had each carried widely varying equipment, by the principate,
the cohorts, and their respective maniples, were all uniformly armed. The individual arms and
armor of the legionary were designed to foster a specific type of close order combat, and they
performed that function admirably. Combined with the effectiveness of Roman siegecraft and siege
weaponry, their equipment enabled the legions to defeat their opposition in battle and ensured
no citadel was unassailable.
Each foot soldier wore a linen undergarment and a short-sleeved tunic that came
to his knees. The legionary boot was the caliga
, heavy sandals studded with hobnails,
which had leather thongs winding halfway up the shin. The caliga
have received a
great deal of attention over the years, both because of the designation "milites caligati
(foot soldier) and due to the famous story detailing the origin of the Emperor Caligula's
("Caligula," meaning "little boot") famous name (Gilliam 185). Over the tunic was worn the
, an iron plate cuirass that covered the chest, stomach, and back.
was by no means universal, as many soldiers wore mail hauberks if they
were able to afford it (Simkins 124).
Helmets in the Roman legion varied extensively during the
period. Helmets could be of bronze or iron, with the Coolus or Imperial-Gallic helmets the norm
(Webster 125). The helmets were always open-faced and failed to cover the ears, as it was
considered imperative for a soldier to have excellent visibility and hearing on the battlefield.
Both types of helmet featured large cheek guards and protective covering for the back of the
neck, with the Gallic neck guard sweeping down while the Coolus extended more directly to the
rear. The common soldiers wore a plume or forward facing crest, while the centurions wore a
transverse crest to more easily identify them. There is some debate as to whether helmet
ornamentation was worn in combat, but Caesar seemed to indicate that this is indeed the case when
he described an intense moment during the Gallic Wars, "The time was so short, the temper of the
enemy so ready for conflict, that there was no space not only to fit crests and decorations in
their places, but even to put on helmets and draw covers from shields" (Caesar II, 21).
Each soldier in the Legion was armed with a gladius, two pila,
and a scutum. The scutum was the traditional large, rectangular shield,
made of layered wood, bound by iron or bronze and covered in leather. The face of the shield was
normally decorated, generally in thin plates of bronze. The pilum was the shock weapon
of the legionary, used to inflict casualties and hamper the enemy in action. The pilum
was roughly 2m long, with the top half composed entirely of iron, ending in a pyramidal point.
When thrown, the iron shanks of the pila were designed to bend or break off, leaving the heavy
iron half of the weapon stuck in the enemy shield. This both hampered the enemy soldier's ability
to use his shield and prevented the pilum from being thrown back.
For close combat the
legionary was equipped with the legendary gladius hispaniensis. It has been said that
the gladius has inflicted more deaths than any other weapon prior to the firearm, and
this is very likely true. The gladii were short, double-edged swords with a wide blade.
The scabbard was hung from the right side, and the legionary drew the weapon with his right hand.
This was necessitated by the large size of the scutum carried in the left, and the gladius was
sized to facilitate its being drawn with the right hand (Webster 129). Centurions, officers, and
cavalryman were generally equipped with a longer sword, the spatha. Each soldier was
also equipped with a pugio, a small triangular shaped dagger.
A legionary on the march was expected to carry a huge amount of gear, dating back to
the time of
(earning the sobriety "Marius' Mules" for the soldiers).
Marius is alleged to have introduced the forked pole used to carry the various entrenching gear,
tools, and other equipment a legionary needed to fight and build the nightly defensive camp
(Keppie 66). The helmet was normally hung from one of the forks while on the march.
The Romans were renowned for their ability to breach walls and invest cities and
fortresses. While their engineering prowess played a major role in this, of no less value was the
wide array of siege engines they utilized. The most common siege engine was the ram, an enormous
beam of wood capped by an iron head shaped like a ram. In order to protect the crew, the
testudo arietaria (tortoise), a shed constructed of wood and hides or iron plates,
was placed over the ram (Webster 240), allowing the ram to reach the base of the walls.
The legions also utilized a wide array of catapults and other artillery pieces.
The largest and most powerful was the
onager, named for the wild ass due to its enormous kick. The onager
launched massive stones, possibly as heavy as two talents (roughly 50 kg), nearly 500m. The
onager utilized only a single, torsion-powered arm to hurl its stones, providing both simplicity
and power in one weapon (Baatz). According to Vegetius, each legion had ten onagri, one for each
cohort (Webster 243). Among the smaller artillery pieces were the ballistae and its smaller
cousin, the scorpiones, torsion powered crossbow-like weapons that fired a stone or bolt. These
weapons resembled the medieval heavy crossbows, cocked by a sort of windlass and held by a
trigger mechanism. Vegetius indicates that each century carried its own ballistae or scorpiones
in a cart called a carro-ballista (Webster 244), giving a legion an impressive array of 60 such
weapons. These field artillery pieces were thus mobile, and therefore not restricted to siege
There can be found no more dramatic an example of the value Rome placed on total
victory than the famous siege of Masada. In 72-73 CE, LEGIO X FRETENSIS besieged 967 Jews in one
of the most impregnable and imposing fortresses ever constructed (Richmond 4). Amply supplied
with water and food, it was impractical to wait out the garrison of Masada-and the Romans were
determined that the Jewish revolt, begun in 66 CE, would end here with such finality that there
would be no doubts that resistance to Roman rule was futile. The plateau of Masada rises out of
an implacable desert like an enormous skyscraper, reaching a height of 300 yards. 730 yards long
and 215 yards wide, there are only two paths up: the winding "snake path" to the east that may be
navigated single file only, and a slightly wider path to the west (Richmond 142). Masada was
thus easily defended, and considered impregnable to any ordinary force. The Romans realized
they could not attack along the existing paths, and they could not starve out the garrison.
Instead, they set out to build their own path. There was an outcrop to the west, which we know
today as White Cliff, and which rises toward Masada. White Cliff falls 137 meters short of the
plateau, however (Simkins 113), and the legion was forced to extend the outcrop across empty
space while simultaneously raising it. LEGIO X built an enormous ramp from the outcrop and used
the position as a platform to fire scorpiones and ballistae upon the defenders, sweeping them
from the walls. When the walls were clear, they attacked the walls with a ram, finally setting
fire to a newly constructed inner, earthen wall. As night fell, the despairing garrison chose
mass suicide rather than face the fate that awaited them. The siege works can still be seen
today, a visible testament to the tenacity and skill of Roman military engineering.