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This webpage reproduces a section of
A Description of the Trajan Column
by John Hungerford Pollen

printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode,
printers to Queen Victoria
London, 1874

Text and engravings are in the public domain.

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Roman arms and accoutrements

 p15  The arms and accoutrements of the Romans are amply illustrated in these bas-reliefs. Though the distinctions of name and the arrangements of the ranks and tactics of the legion had changed, probably the armour and arms of the soldiers were little altered.

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Fig. 3: Lorica lintea — The linen corslet

The light troops performed the part of skirmishers. Of the hastati, half or two-third wore cuirasses, the others wore a cuirass of linen stiffly woven. For this a frock of mail was sometimes substituted. It reached the loins. It is not always easy to decide from the bas-reliefs  p20 of what material these frocks were made. In the full-sized bas-reliefs of the stylobate the chain work can be made out, and in some of the bas-reliefs of the arch of Trajan, now on the arch of Constantine, to which they were removed by the latter emperor, frocks of large and heavy links are sculptured. All the cavalry and some of the infantry of Trajan are clothed in a cuirass or mail coat with short sleeves, and with short linen tunics under. The artist, in many instances, makes out the chief lines and forms of muscles under this covering as if it were extremely tight, and clung to the form like linen or woolen cloth. In some of these instances embossed leather (cuir-bouilli) is the material represented. The bottom of this short dress is generally notched. Fine chain mail was common enough in Rome, and was worn in the armies of many of the foreign tributaries, as well as in those of the enemies of Trajan. The use of this protection depended on the means of the individual officer. Those whose fortune exceeded 100,000 asses were expected to wear chain mail.

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Fig. 4: Lorica, composed of small plates. From the base of the column.

The use of the linen corslet was, however, advocated in the legions by the military emperor. It has been known to the Greeks in very ancient times. Herodotus alludes to such a garment, "θώρηκα λίνεον ἀξιοθέητον;" and again to another taken by the Samians, "λίνεον καὶ ζῴων ἐνυφασμένων συχνῶν, κεκοσμημένον δὲ χρυσῷ καὶ εἰρίοισι ἀπὸ ξύλου,"  p21 an admirable corslet richly embroidered with figures of animals, with decorations of gold and tree wool (silk, or cotton?).

Herodotus further remarks, "τῶν δὲ εἴνεκα θαυμάσαι ἄξιον ἁρπεδόνη ἐκάστη τοῦ θώρηκος ποιέει· ἐοῦσα γὰρ λεπτὴ, ἔχει ἁρπεδόνας ἐν ἑαυτῇ τριηκοσίας καὶ ἑξήκοντα πάσας φανεράς."​19 A light garment, every thread of the warp of which contains three hundred and sixty fibres (or fine threads), each clearly discernible. Pliny also speaks of this fact.​20 There is some doubt as to the weaving of these corslets, viz., whether their powers of resistance were owing to the tight plaits or folds into which the garment was sewn together, or to their being glued or mashed together in three or four thicknesses, or to the compactness of the threads of which the material was woven, and both the character of the sculpture on the column, and the old accounts just quoted, favour the latter idea. Galba is said to have put on one of these defences on the day of his death on account of the warnings he had received of impending danger. "Loricam tamen induit linteam," (to avoid suspicion, for chain mail was also in use), though he could not disguise from himself how little it would protect him from a stab, "quanquam haud dissimulans parum adversus mucrones profuturam."​21 It was of use for general wear, as was the buff coat of the seventeenth century, being neither too hot nor too heavy for the most active movements in the field. There were many of these corslets seen by Pausanias in various temples in Attica. He says of them, "Θώρακας δὲ λινοῦς ἰδεῖν ἐν τε ἄλλοις ἱεπροῖς ἐστιν ἀνακειμένους καὶ ἐν Γρυναῖῳ,"​22 and describing their qualities as compared with those used by the Sarmatians, which were made of slices of ox-hoof sewn together with sinews, he says, "Θῶρακες δὲ οἵ λινοῖ μαχομένοις μὲν οὐχ ὁμοίως εἰσι χρήσιμοι· διᾶσι γὰρ καὶ βιαζόμενοι τὸν σιδήρον, θηρεύοντας δὲ ὠφελοῦσιν, ἐναποκλῶνται γὰρ σφίσι καὶ λεόντων οδόντες καὶ παρδάλεων."​23 They are not so often used for fighting, because a bold thrust with the point will go through them; but for sportsmen they do well, for they blunt the teeth even of lions and leopards. The substitution of so useful a defence for the heavy panoply of the metal armour was advocated by the emperors for the reasons already given.

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Fig. 5: Armour of leather. From the base of the column.

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Fig. 6: Chain mail. From the base of the column.

 p22  The heavily armed men wore the Cataphracta (coat of mail) in the time of Vegetius. In the sculptures of the column these heavy troops wear plate armour, and the Praetorians frocks of chain, some coarser in texture than others. Other troops wear plumata or feathered armour made of plates sewn on leather, one over the other, like the feathers of birds. The Sarmatians wore armour made of horn, as Pausanias tells in the passage already referred to.

The defensive armour in use with the heavy troops of Trajan is in the form of the first kind. A heart preserver nine inches wide was provided to cover the breast, and this was connected by shoulder pieces with a plate of similar kind on the back. From below these, protecting the ribs and reaching to the waist, was a series of plates five or six in number, which were riveted together where the ends met down the middle of the body in front and of the back, and by one or more loose attachments on the sides. They were fastened on leather and secured by a girdle of leather straps round the middle. These pieces lap over or slip under like the shell of the lobster, and as the light armour over the thighs that was in use in this country during the reigns of the Stuart sovereigns, the leather underneath keeping them connected. The shoulders were covered with four or five similar plates which moved up and contracted when required by the movement of the arms at the shoulder joint. The arms were undefended except by the shoulder pieces described. All ranks wore a heavy galea or helmet made of four pieces joined by raised ribs which were a further  p23 protection to the head. Those of more costly description were beaten out and joined by hammering; a projecting plate protected the forehead and shaded the eyes, and two jointed cheek pieces flapped down to protect the ears and the sides of the face. In the helmets of officers were worn three or more feathers, high enough to be distinguishable by their men over the heads of the combatants; sometimes pieces of the skins of wolves. A whole corps or cohort, probably of Praetorians, are sometimes shewn, wearing plumes of feathers. Standard bearers, signiferi, vexilliferi, &c., wore over the helmet a complete skin of a bear, lion, or other beast, generally a bear. This was to make them more distinguishable by the soldiers, and more formidable to the enemy. The light troops carried a round or oval shield three feet long of wood covered with hide, with a central boss and a rim of iron, such as may be seen amongst the iron work in the Gibb's collection in the Museum. Some of the socii, Gauls and Britons, &c., had shields covered with thin bronze ornamented with a raised rib of admirable wrought work, and further decorated with coral, all hammered up, engraved and set with the elegance of Etruscan workman­ship. Two such shields are now in the British Museum, one having been purchase from the Meyrick collection and given by Mr. A. W. Franks, who has fully described them in a learned paper in the Horae Feriales. The shields of the gravis armatura were oblong, made of two boards covered with canvas and calf skin, with a rim and boss of iron, square at the ends, the sides curved inwards; strong enough to resist great pressure when on the ground. The shields would fit together, and in that arrangement formed the testudo, an impenetrable roof. This shield measured 4 feet by 2 and was sometimes a palm longer, protected by light plates above and below the boss (See further, p24). They wore a linen tunic, linen drawers reaching halfway down the calf of the leg, and sandals. A focale or neckkerchief is very general in the column, showing that much of the campaign was carried on through severe weather. They are covered with the pallium or short military cloak, nearly square but made with wings or pointed prolongations on two sides. This is buckled or looped by a fibula over the right shoulder, but sometimes under the chin in front in very cold weather, or when the men were not required to handle their arms. It is fringed and sometimes notched.

The arms of the legionaries were, in the time of Polybius, two darts, of which the shaft was two cubits or three feet long, the iron equal in length and very carefully joined to  p24 the wood. The head was long, and beaten out to a point so fine and soft that when thrown it would bend and would be useless in the hands of the enemy. The shaft was a finger (perhaps an inch) thick. Several are sculptured on the stylobate. It is, however, not clear how many of these darts the light troops used in the time of Trajan. In the sculptures they never carry more than one.​24 In the days of the republic they probably carried as many as they could conveniently hold, and spare arms must have been carried with the baggage of the legion. In the time of Vegetius they carried two. "Triarii cum scutis, cataphractis, galeis, ocreati" (they do not wear greaves on the column) "cum gladiis, semispathis plumbatis et binis missilibus." The body guards carried a lance, hasta, the staff four cubits in length, the point barbed, beaten out like those of the javelins and bound to the staff by leather thongs. The heavy troops wore mail, helmets and greaves,  p25 carried shields, a long and a short broadsword leaded, and two missiles. The rest of the legion carried the pilum, a heavy spear, round or square in the staff, with a triangular head nine inches long.

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Fig. 7

The men carried two swords, one μάχαιρα, was, according to Polybius, Spanish, was worn on the right side, had two edges and a strong point, ὀβελίσκος, like the top of an obelisk. It was a strong dirk or dagger, and very sharp. They had also a longer sword, gladius or spatha. In the sculptures no instance occurs of two swords being worn, nor is it ever longer than a dagger, but swords of both sizes are shown in the trophies in the more carefully detailed representations on stylobate. The soldiers were trained to strike not caesim but give point, punctim, but they appear in the bas-reliefs in most cases to cut rather than thrust. The right foot was advanced in the sword exercise and at close quarters, the left when the spear was levelled to give or withstand a general charge.​25 The pilum is the weapon used in most of the combats sculptured, and when they came to very close quarters they used the short dirk as a broadsword, the spear having been thrown and abandoned.

The only officers distinguished by their dress were the tribunes. Trajan is generally seen closely attended by two officers dressed like himself, perhaps Lucius Quietus and the prefect of the Praetorians. They wear bronze cuirasses fitting before and behind, and made to represent the muscles of the chest and body, reaching to the waist, where they meet a skirt composed of strips of leather perhaps covered on the upper end by light plates of bronze. These are girt round the waist, and a portion falls over the girdle, showing the two ends of each thong in a double row of flaps. A rich belt is fastened with a knot round the waist over these thongs, and supports the sword in its usual place on the left hip. The hilt of that of Trajan was of gold and jewelled. It is short and in a thick metal scabbard. When on horseback, and at the galop, he holds it by the scabbard in his left hand. During his speeches and the reception of envoys, he holds the hilt in his left hand. His two officers are in armour like himself. They never carry shields or wear helmets. Trajan is once or twice seen with a lance in his hand.

The common soldiers of whatever rank carry great burdens on the march. Sometimes a cohort or force was detached and marched light, leaving its baggage with the  p26 legion, but only for special services. Usually a Roman private carried something like 60 pounds avoirdupois, about the weight carried into action by the German soldiers from the time of Frederick the Great, and of our own till recent times, and of the French.​26 Josephus pitied the private soldiers as being beasts of burden. Besides his arms and armour the soldier carried provisions, sometimes as much as for 17 days. What the provisions were in Trajan's time it is not easy to specify, buccellatura, laridum bacon or lard, caro vervecina, weather mutton, were amongst the annonae, necessaries or allowances, for which regulations were made in the Theodosian Code 'de erogatione militaris annonae.'27

The soldier carried his kit on his back, or rather slung over his shoulder on a stake or hasta. It consisted, as in the accompanying woodcut, of, 1, a bag or knapsack, presumably the size of our own, made with straps, crossing diagonally from corner to corner. 2. A small goat-skin of wine or vinegar. 3. A pot of metal, with long upright handle. 4. A ladle. 5. A net to hold fresh provisions.

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Fig. 8: Soldier's Kit.

Every man was supposed to carry on a campaign besides these things, a saw, πρίονα, basket, κόφινον, mattock, ἄμην, hatchet, πέλεκυν, strap, hook and chain, ἰμαντα καὶ δρέπανον καὶ ἄλυσιν; but, though used frequently along with other tools in the course of the warlike operations in Dacia, they are not shown in the bas-reliefs to have been carried by the men. It should be observed that working parties put their helmets off, plant their spears in the ground, set the helmet on the butt and rest the shield against it, but continue to wear their plate armour, which must therefore have been too light to be any impediment to the use of the arms. They wear their side arms, to part with which in the presence of the enemy, even when the working parties are protected by the guards (which is the invariable rule) was a military crime punishable with death. Vegetius adds, that every trade was represented in the legion, as we have already had occasion to notice.28

 p27  From the time of Augustus classici, or sailors or men of the fighting marine, were attached to the legion. They did not form 'naval brigades,' as has been the case in the English army more than once in late wars, but were employed solely to build and navigate boats, and undertake the duties of the pontoon train in making bridges of boats, &c. Vegetius speaks of something like a complete train of this description, "Scaphas de singulis trabibus (light buoyant canoes) excavatas, cum longissimis funibus et interdum ferreis catenis quatenus contextis eisdem monoxylis supertectis etiam et tabulatis," to serve to make bridges of boats.29

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Fig. 9

With regard to auxiliary troops, the Germans are, in these sculptures, nude to the waist, and wear loose drawers or trowsers. They fight with clubs, but are always furnished  p28 with shields of Roman make, so that it is probable that these forces were engaged as tribes or clans under known heads, and that no time had ever been devoted to train them for the Roman service, if even such a training was considered safe or desirable in a population that could not be permanently kept with the Roman standards.

Slingers are seen in No. LXXXVIII and in other instances, who are completely clothed in the tunic and sagum, or cloak, distinctive of the Dacians and their allies, but without the trowsers, and these were probably borderers engaged in the course of the war, for they do not appear in the earlier sculptures. To these must be added archers, dressed in cuirasses or mail shirts, and long linen skirts reaching to the ground; Mauritanian horsemen, whose horses are seen, as in No. XLVII, without saddle or bridle.

I should not pass over, in taking account of baggage, the luxury which crept into the Roman army, at least among the officers and knights of wealth. We have in the Museum a curious collection of casts of the camp service of plate found lately at Hildesheim in Germany, which had belonged to a Roman general, judging by the fineness of the work and the general excellence of the designs; they may probably be attributed to the Romans of the second century. Mallius, Boccius, and Marsius, are names of artists found on some of the pieces, which are upwards of fifty in number. They consist of a large vessel for holding snow to cool wine, with delicate vine-leafwork on the bowl; drinking paterae, flat dishes, in one of which is a noble seated figure of Victory or Minerva, draped and armed, in full relief, and parcel gilt; another has a head of an infant Bacchus. There are oblong dishes, a steel-yard for weighing meat in the shape of a tall terminal figure, and various utensils for the table and kitchen, some in fragments only. It has been but a portion of the travelling canteen of the owner. This splendour was not confined to the general or tribunes. In giving details of Roman furniture​30 reference has been made to Pliny the elder, which I may repeat here. Pompeius Paulinus, a man of equestrian rank at Arles in Gaul, had to Pliny's own personal knowledge, a service of silver plate which he carried with his military baggage on a campaign, weighing 12,000 lbs.31

 p29  Trajan himself was exceptionally simple and unpretending in many ways, but he was given to the pleasures of the table and drank heavily, and the costly and carefully made papiliones or tents seem to imply that though he marched bareheaded and on foot, he was not averse to what formed part of the ordinary state of a commander-in‑chief. His tents are made of leather (?), or some rich or warm material. The surfaces are divided (in the sculptures) into squares, and are probably skins of which we see the seams, or perhaps rich materials protected and strengthened by a large network of cordage.

The Author's Notes:

19 Herod. II.182; III.47.

20 Hist. Nat. xix.2.

21 Suet. Galba, xix.

22 περιηγήσις. Α. κα.

23 Aelian, Hist. A. IX.17. J. B. Crophu, Ant. Maced. Gronov. VI, 2918. Nepos in Iphicr. Ferrarius de re vest. 2.civ.

24 Every legion had also darts so hard as to be able to penetrate any armour or shield — "quibus nullae loricae, nulla scuta possunt sufferre." Veget. II.25.

25 Veget. II.16, 1.xii, &c., and Tacitus Ann. 12 c35.

26 E. Guhl und W. Kohner, Das Leben der Gr. und Römer, &c. 7‑37.

27 E. Herm. Schelii notae in Polyb. Graev. X.1220.

28 "Habet praeterea legio fabros lignarios, instructores carpentarios, ferrarios, pictores reliquosque," lib. I. Carpenters, master carriage builders, smiths, painters, &c.

29 Lib. II.

30 Woodwork and Furniture: Introduction.

31 H. N. XXXIII.50.

Notice that the Mayhoff edition of Pliny emends that passage to just 2000 pounds, although for what reason other than verisimilitude, I don't know. The manuscript transmission of numbers is problematic; but even the lower figure is a rather astonishing weight of silver plate to be carrying around on a campaign, which is of course why Pliny mentions it.

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