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Bill Thayer

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 p1118  Testudo

Unsigned article on pp1118‑1119 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

Woodcuts are from Smith's Dictionary; any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer

TESTU′DO (χελώνη), a tortoise, was the name given to several other objects.

1. To the Lyra, because it was sometimes made of a tortoise-shell. [Lyra].

2. To an arched or vaulted roof (Virg. Aen. I.505; Cic. Brut. 22). [Templum, p1112A]. Thus in a Roman house, when the Cavum Aedium was roofed all over and had no opening or compluvium  p1119 in the centre, the Cavum Aedium was called Testudo (Varro, L. L. V.161, ed. Müller) [Domus, p427B].

3. To a military machine moving upon wheels and roofed over, used in besieging cities, under which the soldiers worked in undermining the walls or otherwise destroying them (Caes. B. B. V.42, 43, B. C. II.2). It was usually covered with raw hides or other materials which could not easily be set on fire. The battering-ram [Aries] was frequently placed under a testudo of this kind, which was then called Testudo Arietaria (Vitruv. X.19 p322, Bip.). Vitruvius also mentions and explains the construction of several other military machines to which the name of Testudines was given (X.20, 21; compare Polyb. IX.41).

[image ALT: A woodcut showing a line of men, 4 of them indicated, holding their shields above their heads so that they interlock, advancing on a wall defended by two men hurling projectiles at them. It is a representation of the Roman military tactic known as the testudo.]

4. The name of Testudo was also applied to the covering made by a close body of soldiers who placed their shields over their heads to secure themselves against the darts of the enemy. The shields fitted so closely together as to present one unbroken surface without any interstices between them, and were also so firm that men could walk upon them, and even horses and chariots be driven over them (Dion Cass. XLIX.30). A testudo was formed (testudinem facere) either in battle to ward off the arrows and other missiles of the enemy, or, which was more frequently the case, to form a protection to the soldiers when they advanced to the walls or gates of a town for the purpose of attacking them (Dion Cass. l.c.; Liv. X.43; Caes. B. G. II.6; Sall. Jug. 94; see cut annexed, taken from the Antonine column).​a Sometimes the shields were disposed in such a way as to make the testudo slope. The soldiers in the first line stood upright, those in the second stooped a little, and each line successively was a little lower than the preceding down to the last, where the soldiers rested on one knee. Such a disposition of the shields was called Fastigiata Testudo, on account of their sloping like the roof of a building. The advantages of this plan were obvious: the stones and missiles thrown upon the shields rolled off them like water from a roof; besides which, other soldiers frequently advanced upon them to attack the enemy upon the walls.​b The Romans were accustomed to form this kind of testudo, as an exercise, in the games of the Circus (Liv. XLIV.9; Polyb. XXVIII.12).

Thayer's Notes:

[image ALT: missingALT]
Testudo: a relief on Trajan's Column. Photo taken in 1997.

a For further details on the testudo, see this passage (among others) of John Pollen's book, The Trajan Column; and, for another useful illustration, the Loeb edition of Ammian (Book 23).

b Frontinus (Strat. 2.3.15) draws attention to the interesting aspect of Mark Anthony's tactic — reported in Dio, loc. cit.: it's not as defensive as one might expect.

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Page updated: 4 Sep 13