Late Roman Army
Although Late Roman troops were adaptable and able to perform a wide range of military operations without support, they had to change their equipment and tactics to suit the current assignment. Ammianus Marcellinus records that some of Julian's heavy troops armed themselves as light infantry and took to river boats to ambush German tribesmen who were hiding on islands in the Rhine. Similarly, members of Comitatus dress for the event.
Sometimes as skirmishers or exploratores (scouts), at other times archers or unarmoured spearmen, but more usually heavily armed and armoured infantry. This page looks at the typical troop types of a Roman legion, and addresses issues of equipment and clothing
The legionary commander is known by several titles in this period - tribune, prefect and the term praepositus. These may have been interchangeable, we do not know. He is of the equestrian order, probably from a noble family, although just as likely to have come up from the ranks. The tribune is likely to have studied at a military college. He relies on his file leaders for discipline, veterans who keep the recruits (literally) in line. His wealth is displayed in the quality of his clothing, brooch and belt fittings.
The vexillum is the flag or banner of the legion, and the man who carries it is the vexillatio. The vexilum, like the other legionary standards, was incredibly important for morale. It was used to identify the unit and as a rallying point. Signals could also be transmitted by movements of the standards.
The standard bearer is 'alert and intelligent' and enjoys a higher status than other soldiers. He is a non-comissioned officer. This standard-bearer wears ringmail, a colourfully decorated long-sleeved tunic and hobnailed boots. His ridge-helm is guilded as befits his rank. Often a small number of men were detailed to defend the standards with their lives, and catastrophe would ensue if they fell into the hands of the enemy!
The front ranks of every Late Roman legion are filled with men like this, wearing armour and and equipped for hand to hand combat. Mail, lorica hamata, is the standard defence, worn over a padded garment, a thoracomachus or subarmalis. The padding helps protect against the effects of blunt trauma, although what form this padding took is difficult to say, iconographic evidence providing only a few hints.
This file leader wears a gilded crested ridge helmet, with eyes embossed on the front. Infantry could carry spicula to fight with or throw before hand to hand combat starts, a spear as well as a sword, with a knife as a secondary weapon. His shield would be planked, concave, and circular or perhaps oval.
Behind the first two or three ranks stood the rest of the legion - veterans and recruits alike, although many veterans tended to be file leaders or file closers, and stood at front and back of each file. Many soldiers were without armour, some even without helmet.
The 4th century writer Vegetius complains that soldiers today throw off their armour because it is too much of a burden. More likely there was not enough of it to go around. The army in this period is bigger than at any time before. Tunics could be brown, yellow, orange, off-white, white, blue, green or red, and nearly all (including children's tunics) had some form of woven decoration included. He wears tight fighting footed hose, cloak and boots with hobnails.
Light infantry soldiers were used in smaller numbers to pepper an enemy unit with missiles, to scout ahead and to screen the movements of heavy infantry. Skirmishers may carry a clutch of light javelins (veruta). These simple weapons can be thrown 20 -30m, the skirmisher dashing forward to cast the verutum then retreating rapidly before the enemy infantry intercept him.
These light infantry units were very vulnerable to missile fire from slings and bows, and so a shield was essential, either a large oval shield like this, or a smaller and easily carried round shield.This soldier wears a long-sleeved tunic. This is not a uniform but typical civillian attire. They wear hobnailed boots and leg-wraps. The leg wraps were commonly worn by farmers and other workers in earlier periods but seem to have been
adopted wholesale by the legions by the 4th century AD. Mosaics show them beng worn by soldiers hunting animals as well as by farm workers. Even a statue of Emperor Valentianian depicts him in leg wraps. The leg wraps (called 'puttees' by the British Army) keep the trews clean, and they are far easier to wash.
Any new recruit who showed an aptitude for archery would have been given a specialised role within the legion. Archers may also have operated light infantry, but in war could shoot over the heads of their own unit to force the enemy to shelter from the rain of arrows.
On his left wrist the archer could wear bracer which protects against the snap of the string when using the 'Western release method'. His back quiver holds 20-30 arrows of an assortment of types.
Staff-slingers are mentioned by the 4th century writer Vegetius. He describes them as casting stones or lead bullets from the rear of a legion. Staff-slingers could loft weighty stones as well as heavy and aerodynamic lead 'glandes' some distance and they proved very useful when besieged.
The status of staff-slingers in the Roman army is unknown; were they legionaries given alternate duties? Or were they dedicated skirmishers? Were they indeed dedicated staff-slingers?
Musical instruments were used by the legions to convey commands to the troops. The tuba was a kind of trumpet, the cornu was a circular bugle, the bucina was a type of horn. The soldier here is a tuba player (tubicen).
An officer of the Equites Taifali, a heavy cavalry unit that was originally made up of a captured Germanic tribe, the Taifali. This officer wears a ridge helmet based on a find from Deurne ridge helm deposited around AD 319. Beneath the tinned copper alloy flexible scale armour this soldier wears a padded subarmalis, that protect the upper shoulders and upper thighs yet still allow freedom of movement.
He carries a small cavalry shield, its size allows the rider to still control the horse and wield a variety of weapons from horseback. The typical Roman horse of around 14 hands, unshod, strong, with a broad back. An unstrung recurve bow is carried in a case. The bridle is a simple arrangement minimising the need for buckles as with a modern Western bridle.
In northern Britain such a cavalryman even with limited armour could be called a cataphract.
Cavalryman, Wet weather gear.
All helmets need some form of padding. Vegetius (Epit. I.20) referred to the “pilleus Pannonicus”. The Pannonian cap can be identified with the hats worn by soldiers on the Arch of Constantine. Shaped liked a pillbox, it is particularly suited to the shape of the ridge helm. A hooded cloak keeps the rain from the soldier, his armour and equipment, while the hood is shaped to fit over a helmet. The small shield is protected by a leather shield cover, waterproofed using lanolin and bees wax, while the unstrung asymmetrical recurve bow is kept inside a leather case.