Thursday, 14 February 2013

First, this lovely photo:  a student of mine (with a colleague in the background) found himself wearing some Roman military garb a few days ago and I snatched this picture of him with the menacing expression.  Really, all teaching should be experiential of this sort.  Why?

I think there's some sort of unsung rule that us academic historian/classicist/byzantinist types ought to steer clear of the reenactment business.  The serious work involves the pouring over of texts or the painstaking uncovering and collating of material remains.  Trying to recreate this stuff?  Poppycock! 

But some do try to keep an open mind.  Schwartz's book, Reinstating the Hoplite (2009  -, incorporates some modern comparisons with Danish police.  Someone even experimented with what was feasible with battle exhortations - Hansen, the arch-nemesis of Pritchett in the battle exhortation debate, maybe (? I can't remember).   If you haven't given it a shot, however, I'll admit that it's hard to appreciate the value that reenactment (and the like) exercises can have. 

Well, when another (mature) student showed up in my colleague(Matt Gibbs)'s office with a trunk full of Roman armour and then set about dressing another student Andrew (above), our volunteer, certain things started to make a lot of sense about the practicalities of combat.

I'll confess that I've never really given much thought to Roman armour.  This despite the fact that I've spent no small amount of time taking a look at all sorts of sculptural friezes with well armoured Roman soldiers, including those famous ones on Trajan's Column (  Not all of those are armoured - and some have speculated that this has more to do with different types of soldiers than anything.  Though even with this things get muddled - are those not heavily armoured depicted necessarily auxiliaries?  What of those men standing around Trajan when he's giving an exhortation?  Are they auxiliaries?  If they are legionaries does this lend credence to the fictional speeches in historiography view?

Anyway, back to the issue at hand.  Quite a few soldiers on the column have the sort of equipment that Andrew's wearing above (lorica segmentata), and that we usually find on Roman soldiers in movies like Gladiator.  On Trajan's Column, some are fighting (the testudo scene for example), while others are marching (those crossing the boat-bridge).  Does this mean that we should assume that legionaries were always wearing this sort of stuff? 

Well, we could look for some comparative evidence from other sculptural friezes.  I took a bunch of photos of Roman soldiers from tombstone reliefs when I was at the most recent Limes Congress (XXII - in Ruse, Bulgaria.  Here are a couple of highlights:

I'd hoped that I had some with heavy armour on, but no dice.  The fact that these soldiers on the friezes that I took pictures of are on horseback, and that they hail from a provincial context, does suggest that these are auxiliaries.  So, these pictures are perhaps less helpful.

But, all's not lost, and here's where the reenactment business kicks in.  When I picked up the armour, whether the lorica or chainmail (which was also available), I was surprised - especially with the chainmail - at just how heavy it was.  The heaviness of the armour got me thinking about all those slaves that Roth argued, some time ago (Historia 1994), were attached to each legion (bringing the total from around 5200 soldiers on paper to close to 6600 men in each legion).  I was convinced anyway, but am even more so now.  Holding that armour - and trying to put the stuff on in the first place - made me realize just how much easier it is to have those slaves around.  The soldiers could have used that help to put the damn stuff on, and if they could swing it to carry their armour and equipment when marching great distances.  And, if your common legionary couldn't swing it I at least think that officers could have swung it. 

The firsthand (so to speak) experience also helps to illustrate the difficulty in orchestrating a major military campaign, and how impressive the Romans were for being able to do this with such success for so long.  It also strengthens my belief that Justinian's reconquest campaigns (discussed in an earlier blog) were, as I argued, fairly substantial efforts, despite the seemingly paltry numbers reported by Procopius.  The sixth century empire, for all its wealth up until the plague struck, lacked the logistical support of the army of the Principate and couldn't hope to carry on a major expedition 100s or 1000s of miles away from home anywhere near as effectively as its predecessor with anywhere near the same number of men and gear.  Rather, we should be impressed that they were able to carry it off in the first place, for all the trouble it caused them.

So, with this new-found appreciation for reenactment stuff (less useful when thinking about historiography and more useful when thinking about military stuff) I think I'll be taking a hard look at what some practical exercises can tell me about the Roman military that the textual, epigraphical, and papyrological material can't.  I'm also thinking that I need to get me a Roman legionary's battle-outfit!  But, I might still aim for that elusive Storm Trooper's costume first.

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