Roman Military Equipment

By Gardner, Andrew | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview
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Roman Military Equipment

Gardner, Andrew, Antiquity

M.C. BISHOP. A handbook of articulated Roman plate armour (Lorica Segmentata Vol. I [JRMES Monograph 1]). vii+112 pages, 86 figures, 9 colour photographs, 10 tables. 2002. [Duns] Armatura; 0-953-9848-42 (ISSN 1477-8645) paperback.

I.P. STEPHENSON & K.R. DIXON. Roman cavalry equipment. 127 pages, 104 figures, 18 colour illustrations. 2003. Stroud & Charleston (SC): Tempus; 0-7524-1421-6 paperback 17.99 [pounds sterling] & $29.99.

MICHEL FEUGERE. Weapons of the Romans (tr. David G. Smith). 224 pages, 277 figures, 5 tables. 2002. Stroud & Charleston (SC): Tempus; 0-7524-2506-4 paperback 19.99 [pounds sterling] & $32.50.

These three volumes represent the best and worst of the sub-discipline of Roman military equipment studies, and thus encapsulate the potential and the limitations of this sub-discipline to contribute to Roman archaeology more broadly. The military was a fundamentally important institution in Roman imperial society, and as such should be equally important to those attempting to understand that society in the present. As Simon James (2002) has recently noted in a comprehensive review of the field, Roman military archaeology still has a long way to go to shake off its parochial image, which has been acquired partly through prolonged subservience to epigraphy and prosopography. However, the wealth of material available, not least including the equipment of the soldiers, holds a great deal of potential, providing that it is firmly situated within past social and present theoretical contexts. The most successful of the three books under review, Bishop's, points squarely in this direction, while remaining primarily a detailed artefactual study of the kind that is certainly vital to any future exploitation of the material. In other words, it is both interesting and useful. The least successful, Stephenson and Dixon's, is unfortunately neither, while Feugere's Weapons of the Romans falls somewhere in between, combining thorough discussion of (particularly) Continental material with some--but perhaps not enough--pertinent insights into military life.

Body armour

Bishop's volume focuses on one specific class of material culture. Lorica segmentata, as Bishop discusses on p.1, is the name (coined in the late sixteenth century) for the segmental body armour which dominates both public perceptions of the Roman military and site finds of armour fittings. Although a second (forthcoming) volume detailing individual finds--and a website--accompany this book, it is admirably self-contained. An introductory chapter deals primarily with the history of scholarship on the subject, highlighting the ways in which different scholars, with different evidential prejudices, have approached the task of understanding the construction of the armour. The second chapter discusses this evidence in more detail, weighing the iconographic and archaeological sources, and making some thoughtful comments on the value of reconstructive or experimental work on the subject. A short section on precursors of this kind of armour then precedes the descriptive heart of the volume, four chapters on the four main types of lorica segmentata: Kalkriese, Corbridge, Newstead and Alba Iulia, each named after sites with key evidence. These are followed by chapters on other uses of segmental armour, technical and social or historical matters, and on the use of reconstructions. A glossary and appendices providing further archaeological and bibliographic information complete the volume.

Clearly, such a book is unlikely to be of immediate appeal to those with no interest in Roman military equipment, but it does represent the kind of approach which is necessary to further work which will interest them. It is well illustrated, and each of the four chapters on the main types of armour (or, at least, the three which relate to archaeologically-known types; the Alba Iulia is only represented on one sculpture) is designed with careful attention to use by finds specialists and others doing material research.

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