The Roman army did not present the uniform appearance depicted on propaganda monuments like the famous Trajan's column. In fact the soldiers would have made a somewhat motley impression with many different kinds of helmets and armour being in use. This was partly caused by the origin of the imperial army in a civic militia of propertied citizens. Soldiers were expected to furnish themselves with weapons and equipment and recieved government issue equipment only on a limited scale. The other reason for the lack of uniformity was the problem of reequipping the vast Roman armed forces in a society that lacked means of mass serial production. Items remained in use as long as they were serviceable and only gradually replaced with more 'modern' equipment.
Military equipment varied according to the battlefield functions of the troops. Archers, cavalrymen, heavy infantry and skirmishers all used weapons and equipment adapted to their needs. As units specialising in particular fighting skills were levied in different parts of the empire this resulted to some extent in distinctive styles of weaponry and armour being used.
The centurio, the officer commanding a centuria or 'hundred', was instantly recognizable by his transverse helmet crest and his vitis, the vine stick used as a badge of office. Roman soldiers usually wore their gladii suspended at their right, but all known depictions of centuriones show them to carry their swords at their left and their daggers at the right. This may therefore have been an additional means of recognition. Greaves are also commonly shown on gravestones of centurions and may have helped identify these officers.
This photograph shows a reconstruction of a typical first century AD legionary infantryman stationed in the northern provinces of the empire. This heavy infantry soldier wears a rectangular scutum or shield, a laminated plate armour known as 'lorica segmentata' and a socalled Imperial Gallic helmet for protection. His offensive weapons consist of a heavy javelin, the pilum, a gladius or short sword and a pugio or dagger. His clothing consists of a tunica, a focale or scarf and a pair of hobnailed caligae. These basic dress items could in cold weather be supplemented by breeches, trousers, socks and a heavy cloak. Various colours of clothing were worn by Roman soldiers with white, red, brown, blue and green all being attested in literary and depictional sources.
This image shows reenactors posing as a couple of Roman archers. Although the legion also counted a number of men in its ranks trained and equipped to fight as archers, these reconstructed sagittarii belong to an auxiliary unit. Many Roman units of bowmen were originally recruited in the Middle East and in the Danubian provinces. Trajan's column shows these troops using distinctive native clothing and equipment including conical helmets, mail loricae hamatae, long tunicae and powerful composite bows. Archers were employed as skirmishers or deployed behind lines of heavy infantry to provide covering fire.
The Roman legionaries were well equipped for combat. All soldiers were protected by a form of body armour. This soldier wears the laminated plate armour known as the 'lorica segmentata' of the Corbridge A type. The original Roman name for this armour has not survived, but the neo-Latin term of 'segmentata coined during the Renaissance is in general use. It consisted of some forty iron segments joined by riveted strips of leather on the inside and brass hinges and fittings on the outside. The armour could be taken apart into four pieces, two shoulder guards and two body parts, for storage. The 'lorica segmentata' provided a flexible armour with much improved protection for the torso and shoulders compared to the mail lorica hamata or scale lorica squamata.
Despite the gradual introduction of laminated plate armour, mail and scale armour remained in legionary use and indeed even outlived it in army service. Mail consisted of small iron, bronze or brass links joined together to provide a very flexible armour. Romans used stamped, welded and riveted links in their mail shirts. Evidence from Southern Germany indicates that some mail hauberks were made in decorative patterns of iron, bronze and brass links. Many mail armours had a double layer of mail on the shoulders to provide better protection against the slashing blades favoured by Celtic and Germanic opponents.
Scale armour was also in general use. These armours consisted of overlapping rows of small iron, bronze or brass scales attached to a cloth or leather garment. Variations with ribbed scales were known as lorica plumata or 'feathered armour'. Though offering less protection than mail or laminated armour, the superior looks of lorica squamata and lorica plumata made it popular with cavalrymen, NCO's and officers.
Helmets could be decorated with cristae or helmet crests made of feathers or horsehair. Side tubes were used for feathers or small tufts of hair. It is not known for sure whether legionaries went into action with crested helmets. Although some depictions show crests being worn in action, others show unadorned helmets. Known crest colours used by the Roman army include red, purple, black, white and yellow.
The short sword was the main weapon used by the Roman infantry in close quarter combat. Several different types were common during the first century AD. The older patterns, nowadays known as Mainz-Fulhams, were clearly derived from the old gladius Hispaniensis. They had a tapering blade with a long point suited for ripping open mail shirts. The newer pattern, with the modern designation of Pompeii-type, had a straight edge with a shorter point. The introduction of these new weapons has in modern literature been connected to the fact that the Roman army was increasingly faced by unarmoured barbarians rather than the mailed troops fielded by the Hellensitic kingdoms. Modern authors usually define gladius as a technical term for short swords. References from the ancient sources however make it clear that the Romans in fact used this word for any kind of sword, not specifically as a technical term for weapons with a short blade.