.. and relieving the shoulders of part of their burden. Moreover, tests using contemporary arrow types by Massey suggests that most arrowhead types consistently penetrated the mail to a depth that would prove lethal to the wearer. However, bunching of the mail at suspension points prevented penetration of the mail beyond a depth of 3-5 cm. This [implies] that the doubling of mail shoulder defenses known to be practiced by both Romans and Celts may have saved the life of their owners.” These observations are consistent with Plutarch’s writings of the life of Marcus Licinius Crassus who in 53 B.C.
engaged the Parthians with his army in the deserts of Mesopotamia at the Battle of Carrhae. Plutarch was not exaggerating when he spoke of arrows: ..which could pierce armor and pass through every kind of [defensive] covering, hard or soft alike . . . or of .
. . hands [pinned] to their shields, and their feet nailed through into the ground, so that they [were capable] neither fly nor fight. The armor in question was probably mail as it was used extensively by legionnaires during the late Republic until the introduction of the lorica segmentata in Claudian times. Massey’s testing also showed that arrow shafts were occasionally locked into place by the deformed mail rings through which these had passed, which would have made them difficult to remove and the wounds considerably more difficult to treat.
Mail also would not absorb the impact of a blow, unless extremely well padded by a very thick doublet, and the mail could also be driven into the flesh of the wearer. It is, perhaps, because of these disadvantages that after the introduction of segmental armor, mail was probably largely confined to the auxiliary troops. The form of cuirass for which the 1st century is best known is the lorica segmentata. The name was not invented by the Romans but came into use during the Renaissance. It was the first type of articulated plate armor cuirass, the origins of which are unclear.
The segmental cuirass may have found its way into the Roman army from the gladiatorial arena. The first time the Roman legionnaires came into contact with this armor may have been during the revolt of Florus and Sacrovir in 21 A.D. This revolt consisted of heavily armored gladiators, called crupellarii, fighting against legionnaires. Tacitus described how armored gladiators were killed by the legionnaires hacking through their segmented armor with pickaxes. It is highly probable that this form of armor was being issued as standard legionary equipment by the time the Emperor Claudius’ troops invaded Britain in A.D.43. The lorica segmentata was constructed of collar and shoulder units which consisted of 24 plates (lames) and 16 girdle plates.
The latter were half semicircular iron lames, consisting of strips of iron sheet, and were positioned horizontally, riveted onto leather straps. The lames were laced at the center of the breast and back in such a way as to encircle the trunk completely while still allowing the body considerable freedom of movement. The articulation of the bands was kept in place by a complicated system of straps and buckles. Fastened on the inside by leather straps and fastened at the front and back with laces, buckles and straps. These fittings, were usually made of a thin brass sheet. The defense was completed with two half-collars (shoulder guards) of articulated lames.
Each collar consisted of a small breastplate (3.3 cm by 8.6 cm wide at the lower end) which was fastened to other lames that formed a neck guard. Both of the shoulder-guards consisted of five plates. The largest upper plates were made from three pieces joined to each other by bronze hinges as were the collar units beneath. The lorica segmentata was superior to mail in both manufacturing and as armor. However, the armor’s chief advantage was in its weight, around 12lb, depending upon the thickness of plates used.
Plates were made by hammer work, and Bishop and Coulston note that an analysis of surviving fragments of iron plates of the lorica segmentata type show that they had not been hardened in any way, although the Romans are known to have been aware of this technique. They also suggest that Roman armorers deliberately produced ‘soft’ armor that could absorb the force of a blow as it crumpled. This softness allowed the metal to deform extensively, absorbing the impact of weapons and denying them the resistance needed to penetrate effectively. Massey cites evidence of contemporary arrowhead types used against this type of armor. On no occasion did arrowheads of any type tested afford lethal penetration.
Shots directed at this type of armor either glanced off or gave minimal penetration. This effectiveness was apparently due to a combination of the softness of the metal and the internal gap between the plates. Massey also proposes that up until the introduction of lorica segmentata in Claudian times there was no armor form in widespread use which could guarantee the wearer’s safety against arrow attack. This armor was also especially fortified in shoulder-defense. As such it may have normally been employed by particular legions, notably those fighting the Celts, whose style of fighting and use of weapons such as the long sword posed a particular threat to the head and shoulders of the line infantryman. Segmented plate armor had disadvantages as well. Most notable is the loss of protection to the thighs and upper arms. Simkins states that during the Emperor Trajan’s Dacian campaign, the Romans fought against adversaries armed with long scythe-like swords called falx. These were capable of reaching past the legionnaire’s scutum (a large curved shield) to injure the unprotected sword arm.
This weapon may have also endangered the soldiers’ legs which from Republican times were bare, protection here being compromised for the sake of mobility. However, the Adamklissi monument suggests that legionnaires in these two campaigns may have augmented their protection with greaves and segmental armguards similar to those worn by gladiators. The archaeological record provides rich evidence of this type of armor. Excavation has provided more evidence of this form of cuirass than both scale and mail. The most important discovery was made in 1964, at the site of the Roman station of Corstopitum in Northumberland (Corbridge) at Hadrian’s Wall, when two complete sets of this type were found in a wooden chest buried below the floor of a timber building of the Flavian period fort.
This is the only site where this type of armor has been found in a reasonably complete state, despite the fact that copper alloy buckles, hinges, hooks and loops of this armor are a common find on 1st century Roman military sites throughout Europe and the Golan Heights in Israel, indicating its widespread use. Another pattern of lorica segmentata has been identified and tentatively reconstructed from fragments found in the well in the headquarters building at Newstead near Melrose in Scotland. Simkins suggests that this pattern was probably developed in the later years of the 1st century and is the model for the majority of representations of legionary soldiers on Trajan’s Column. It is difficult to tell how long the earlier Corbridge pattern lorica remained in use until it was eventually replaced by the Newstead type. They may have continued for quite some time after the introduction of the Newstead type for two reasons.
First, like the replacement of mail by segmented armor types, re-equipping legions with new armor was expensive; and second, armor which was still in a serviceable condition remained useful regardless of age. The Newstead type of cuirass is a much simplified pattern in which the elaborate fittings of the older patterns (such as buckles and ties) have been discarded. The hinges have been replaced by simple rivets, and the belt and buckle fastenings by hooks. The shoulder plates are riveted together and the girdle lames are larger than previous lames, although probably reduced to five or six pairs, the lower two pairs being replaced by a single pair of wide plates. The inner shoulder-guard plate in this type is a single strip instead of three plates hinged together, coming down much further at the front and back. This deep inflexible breast and upper back plates were laminated in the same way as the girdles and held together by internal leather straps.
The simplification of the lorica segmentata indicates that earlier designs were probably over engineered and the complex cuirass types were both labor and maintenance intensive and more prone to fall apart. This form of cuirass was used extensively for most of this period due to its successful form. In contrast to the earlier armors the lorica segmentata was flexible, lighter and easier to maintain and repair. The design of this armor also adapted and evolved in response to the fighting techniques of a number of different enemies and the economic needs of Rome at this time. Armor has much to tell about the Roman Army, its method of waging war, and the economy of the first century. The change in military equipment illustrates a process whereby Roman forces borrowed the technology of other people whom they came into conflict.
These adaptions are illustrated by the cuirass forms taken from the Greeks, and the Celts. Innovation occurred using the available military and civilian technology to counter a threat posed by a particular enemy. Thus by the 1st century A.D. much of the soldiers’ equipment, including the cuirass, was derived from enemies of earlier periods. The four types of cuirass identified in this paper have their own characteristics and variations.
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