Roman soldiers in Leiden

Today, I went to Leiden to attend Dr Stefanie Hoss’s defence of her (second) PhD dissertation, entitled Cingulum militaris: Studien zum römischen Soldatengürtel vom 1. bis 3. Jh. n. Chr. In other words, her research was about Roman military belts from the first to the third century AD. The PhD defence was in the late afternoon and everything went according to schedule (these days, you – fortunately! – never have to worry about not being awarded your PhD once the actual defence and ceremony have been scheduled).

Visual impact of the Roman soldier

In the morning, between 9.00 and 12.30, Dr Hoss had organized a workshop entitled The visual impact of the Roman soldier: workshop on the visual aspects of the Roman soldier’s dress and equipment. The workshop consisted of a series of six lectures by Thomas Fischer (University of Cologne), Jennifer Schamper (idem), Stefanie Hoss (Leiden University and the University of Cologne), Tatiana Ivleva (Leiden University), Annette Paetz gen. Schiek (German Textile Museum Krefeld), and Rob Collins (Newcastle University).

Prof. Thomas Fischer’s opening lecture (in German) was on the depiction of gods (and God) on the equipment of Roman soldiers during the imperial age. Interestingly, Fischer started his lecture with a brief look at German soldiers during the Second World War who were buckles in which the Nazi symbol of the swastika was combined with the inscription “God be with us”. Similarly, Roman soldiers could also combine military symbols with emblems of the divine. One of those symbols, of course, was the legion’s Eagle (standard), a reference to Jupiter. Similarly, shields, such as those depicted on the Column of Trajan, could be decorated with the wings of an eagle or stylized lightning bolts, both of which again referred to Jupiter. Depictions of the gods become much more common from the second half of the second century AD onwards and are very common in the third century AD. During the Tetrarchy, these images seem to have disappeared, and from Constantine the Great onwards we encounter Christian symbols instead of depictions of the pagan gods.

Jennifer Schamper’s lecture, “In the face of the enemy”, focused on the use of parade armour (used by Roman cavalry) and decorated helmets in battle. It was based on her as-yet ongoing PhD research. Already Thomas Fischer emphasized that infantry helmets tended to be undecorated, whereas cavalry helmets were more often decorated with images of the gods. Schamper tried to answer if decorated equipment like this was actually used in battle, which she believed can be answered in the affirmative, casting doubts on the interpretation of this gear as “parade” armour. Instead, decorated equipment, like greaves and helmets, were simply part of the cavalryman’s standard equipment, an argument based largely on the sheer number of specimens found and a reference from Arrian. Perhaps face-masks and some other elements were only worn when on parade, but this need not have been the case. Schamper emphasized the psychological effect that face-masks and other decorated armour would have had on the enemy.

Stefanie Hoss’s lecture was based on her PhD research, namely Roman military belts, which she regarded as both status symbols and fashion items. Military belts were worn by soldiers both when they were in full armour and when they were simply remaining in the camp. The belt was a status item and associated with the sword that was suspended from it. The sword was considered an extension of the man and therefore its scabbard was also a focal point for decoration. Similarly, the belt was also decorated. In time, the belt gained greater status on its own than just the sword, as the belt essentially became a shorthand for the manliness of the wearer and his status as soldier. The belt became especially important after the creation of professional soldiers and especially after the reorganization of the army under the Emperor Augustus. The professional soldiers of the Roman army were considered separate from other Roman men and the belt served to distinguish them as a separate social group, even when the sword was eventually removed from the belt (from the second century AD onwards) and started to be attached to a shoulder strap. In other words, like the toga, the belt informed people about the status of the man in question, and the decoration of the belt in turn gave an indication of the rank and wealth of the wearer.

After a short break, Dr Tatiana Ivleva talked about brooches and military dress in the western half of the Roman Empire during the first few centuries AD. Initially, brooches (fibulae) were considered to be strictly female items of dress, but they were also worn by men in military contexts, and they were perhaps fixed elements of Roman military dress. In particular, cloaks were draped across the shoulders and generally pinned at the right shoulder by a brooch or pin. Depictions of these items are commonly depicted on, for example, Roman gravestones of the first to fourth centuries AD. They tended to be clearly visible, prominently displayed on the shoulder, and were thus worn to be seen. Crossbow brooches were especially associated with high-ranking military soldiers in the third and fourth centuries AD. Similarly, many busts of Roman Emperors, such as Marcus Aurelius, depict them wearing cloaks fixed with prominent brooches, especially disc-shaped ones. Analysis of the find-spots of brooches in a Roman fort suggest that they were lost all over the place and may therefore have been very common items.

Annette Paetz gen. Schiek’s lecture, “Dressed to command”, was about arrow-shaped tunic decorations (perhaps originally from tunics worn by Syrian soldiers assigned to protect caravans?) and military ranks in the third century BC. The main focal point was a painted shroud from Luxor, which has since been damaged by water. Egypt, of course, offers good conditions to preserve organic materials such as textiles. The shroud once covered a mummy, but the exact provenance is and circumstances of the find are unknown. The shroud depicted a young man holding objects that identified him as a high-ranking Roman, even though other elements, such as the presence of Osiris and Anubis, suggest that he was of Egyptian origin. As befitting Egypt in this time, his name was Greek (“Tyranos”, interestingly enough). The tunic and cloak worn by the figure identified him as a military man, as did the military belt and associated sword (in ancient Rome, only military men were allowed to openly carry weapons in public). In other pictures, the men are similarly equipped, but don’t have any belts: the speaker asked if this meant that they were in a more relaxed atmosphere, i.e. were they off-duty?

Finally, Dr Rob Collins’s lecture was about the “sensory impact of the late Roman soldier”. In this lecture, Collins focused on a topic that was touched upon in a number of earlier lectures, not just the visual impact (such as the colours used in the dress and equipment of Roman soldiers), but also the smell of the combatants (and their horses), as well as the sounds that they made when on the march and in battle. These are interesting aspects that the silent items, studied in isolation and often shown in display cases or as photos, usually fail to convey adequately. Collins’s particular emphasis was on the later Roman Empire, from the Tetrarchy onwards, discussing also the relatively large variation in dress and regional preferences across the Empire during this period. If more attention were devoted to regional variation, perhaps we would be able to better understand the local conditions in which Roman soldiers operated and how they may have fit into local societies.

Closing remarks

Both the lectures and Stefanie Hoss’s PhD dissertation focused on a topic that has thus far received relatively little attention, namely Roman military dress. Perhaps this is an aspect that we can lavish more attention on in future issues of Ancient Warfare, too. Regardless, attending these lectures and the PhD defence certainly offered more food for thought and demonstrate what a rich and dynamic field of study this is.

My thanks to Stefanie Hoss for the invitation and one or two corrections to the above.

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