Roman Living History Society


"Imperial-Gallic" helmets and the Auxilia

By Tim Edwards

Our society has for a long while chosen to show obvious differences between our portrayal of first century legionary and auxiliary troops. This is mainly for the benefit of the public; in that we can thus neatly go on to explain the different roles, service conditions and backgrounds of these troops during our presentations. However, continuing amateur research by society members is increasingly making us question how obvious the equipment differences may have originally been between these two classes of soldier. In this article we have chosen to discuss the use of a specific item of Roman military equipment: the so-called "Imperial-Gallic" type helmet. (1)

Typically, for displays our legionaries have adopted the Imperial Gallic helmet as standard, usually in iron. In contrast our auxiliaries usually use a wider mix of brass helmet types, though very seldom the aforementioned Imperial Gallic type. This choice has to a large extent been determined by more popular sources stemming from the work of H. Russell Robinson, who in 1975 established a corpus of evidence for Roman armour and a detailed system of classification. It was Robinson's opinion that certain helmets could be classified as belonging to auxiliary soldiers due largely to the fact that these were simpler. In both his illustrative and full-scale reconstructions, Robinson assigned the more complex Imperial Gallic type helmet to legionary soldiers. In part this opinion was upheld by the apparent differences shown on Roman triumphal sculpture, such as Trajan's column.

However, this notion does not seem to hold true when we examine the actual tombstones of the soldiers themselves. A whole series of soldier's gravestones from the Rhineland depict unarmoured soldiers from both the legions and the auxilia, with seemingly little difference between the two. (2) Unfortunately, as these individuals are depicted without helmets such reliefs have little bearing on the issue at hand.

Imperial Gallic helmets are in fact rarely depicted in Roman sculpture, which instead usually depicts more antiquated Attic or Hellenistic designs. The literary record seemingly has even less to offer, and it is in the archaeological record that we must hope to find answers.

At a rough guess we now know of around 50 reasonably intact examples of the Imperial Gallic type helmet, not including isolated cheek pieces and much smaller fragments. But how are we to determine what kind of units were using these examples?

Ownership or unit inscriptions on surviving Imperial Gallic helmets are extremely rare indeed; only three examples can be cited from our research compiled so far. Curiously these all seem to fit in one group, despite having different find spots, these being from Mainz (D), Rijswik (NL) and from an unknown location in the Balkans (Junkelmann 2000, 126-7). All accord to Robinson's Imperial-Gallic type I dating approximately to the third quarter of the first century A.D (1975, 58-60), being of brass and exhibiting tubes for side feathers. Only the Mainz example records a unit title alongside its owner's name, and belonged to a legionary of the first Adiutrix legion .The helmet from the Balkans is also likely to have belonged to a legionary (Junkelmann 2000, 180-4) In addition, the cresting style of all three, plus a further uninscribed example from Budapest, might also be compared with the gravestone of a fully armoured soldier of the II Adiutrix legion (3), also from Budapest (Robinson 1975, 167 pl 470.) Whilst interesting, these few inscriptions only account for one form of Imperial Gallic helmet. Closer scrutiny of the exact archaeological context of original finds might potentially be more informative. For example, if a certain type of helmet is evident from an auxiliary fort, we should be able to draw some conclusions from this fact. However, in practice this method is not nearly so simple, as in many cases it is not possible to determine the exact garrison unit in specific periods, whilst the occurrence of mixed garrisons is also possible (4). Added to this is the fact that a many examples do not come from exact contexts, a large proportion being found in rivers and an increasing number emerging from private collections without recorded provenances.

There are however a small number of helmets which have emerged from soldiers' burials. This in itself is significant in that citizen troops would typically have been cremated and interred with few if any grave goods, suggesting these graves belong to non-citizen troops. A prime example is a warrior's grave excavated at the ancient cemetery site of Verdun in Slovenia (Feugere 1993, 205-7). Several items of the deceased soldier's military kit were discovered, including an early iron Imperial-Gallic helmet, a "Mainz type"gladius which had been bent double and a conical shield boss. The latter item has been associated with Germanic auxiliaries on other sites (ibid, 78 & 87) and with the other fittings found seems entirely appropriate for the style of auxiliary shield seen recurrently with auxiliary troops depicted on first and early second century monuments. Bent swords are also highly characteristic of European Iron Age weapon burials. All these points taken together strongly suggest that this soldier was an auxiliary.

A very similar assemblage has been uncovered at the cemetery site of Idria pri Baci, also in Slovenia (ibid, 207 and Robinson 1975, 53-5). Again, this included an iron Imperial Gallic helmet (5), a Mainz type gladius with scabbard and a circular shield boss. The well-known Augustan iron helmet from Nijmegen in Holland, dubbed the "Imperial Gallic A" by Robinson (1975, 50-1), was also found in a grave with a conical shield boss. An Augustan period Imperial Gallic helmet in copper-alloy has been found out of context in Kakheti in Eastern Georgia (Braund), though in circumstances which lead the excavators to the hypothesis that it was from a burial. Such evidence would seem to suggest that in the Augustan period at least, Imperial Gallic helmets might have seen regular use by the auxilia. Furthermore, finds of an Augustan brass Imperial Gallic helmet bowl and isolated cheek pieces from the Bosporus have been linked with sustained activity by auxiliary units in this area (Treister).

The likely use of the Imperial Gallic helmet type by the auxilia in the Augustan period is hardly surprising when we consider that the design is by definition Gallic in origin, stemming from the Agen/Port type helmets of the first century B.C (Robinson 1975, 42-7). Examples of these helmets are just as likely to have been used by warriors fighting for Roman forces than against them. Individuals from areas where such designs originated are likely to have continued using them when serving in the auxilia. A warrior's grave dating to the mid first century B.C from Giubiasco in Switzerland includes both an "Agen/Port A" type helmet and a standard late republican Roman infantry gladius (Feugere 1994, 15).

Unfortunately there are very few weapons burials dating beyond the Augustan era into remainder of the first century A.D, denying us a potentially valuable insight into auxiliary equipment throughout the period. It would not be too surprising if the use of Imperial Gallic helmets by the auxilia continued, although we should not forget that other types of helmet would almost certainly have been used. Conversely, it is also worth considering when the helmet type saw widespread adoption amongst the legions, especially if many of the early examples might be attributed to auxiliary soldiers.

One possible clue might lie in closer study of crest fittings, as with the earlier discussion concerning the Imperial Gallic "I" type. Unlike other helmet patterns in use during the Augustan period; i.e. the Montefortino and Coolus types, many of the early Imperial Gallic helmets lack crest mountings. This certainly holds true for those included within the suspected auxiliary graves already cited. We can add to this a number of other broadly similar helmets lacking crest fittings that have been found out of context: one from the river Kupa at Sisak (Robinson 1975, 50-2), a crude example from the Frankfurt museum (Baatz and Herrmann 2002, 291) and an unprovenanced example formerly in the Axel Guttmann collection (Junkelmann 2000, 124-5) (6). However, Imperial Gallic helmets of the latter first century A.D seem to have been universally fitted with crests, implying changes at some level, which might feasibly include changing centres of manufacture, elaboration of appearance or conceivably use by different troops. This aspect certainly merits further study.

To summarise, initial research seems to suggest that in the first century A.D, the Imperial Gallic helmet could have been equally appropriate for both the legions and the auxilia, with the possibility that the earliest widespread use was by the latter. Preconceived notions of the relative simplicity of auxiliary infantry equipment, to an extent supported by imagery from generic Roman monumental sculpture, need not hold true. Instead we should focus more on firm archaeological evidence, particularly when it occurs in context.


1) The classification system created by Robinson is now perhaps outdated, as a number of new examples have been published which do not fit neatly within his A-J categories, which means that the system needs now to be either renewed or scrapped for academic purposes. On the continent an alternate system based on find-sites rather than arbitrary categories is used.
2) For further debate refer to the appendix in Bishop and Coulston, 1993.
3) The two Adiutrix legions did not have typical origins for a legionary unit, being recruited from non-citizen marines in Italy in A.D.69. This might conceivably provide an explanation for the apparently distinctive cresting style.
4) Similarly debate still continues on the possible use of the so-called "lorica segmentata" by the auxilia, as fragments have been found at several fort sites that are presumed to have held auxiliary garrisons. See research on recent excavations at Alchester for example.
5) Along with an example from Valkenburg (NL) dated to the Claudian period, this helmet was classified by Robinson as the "Imperial Gallic type E" (1975, 53-5). However, there are certain features on the Idria helmet that suggest an earlier date of manufacture, including the apparent lack of shaping around the ears and the high stepping in the occipital area. A closer parallel can now be provided by an example from Eich (D) (Oldenstein 1990), which was unknown to Robinson.
6) An early Imperial Gallic helmet from Eich (cited above) might conceivably have been retrofitted with its crest mount, in which case it might potentially be included with this group. (Ibid)

Baatz, D. and Herrmann, F.R. 2002: Die Romer in Hessen.
Bishop, M.C. and Coulston, J. 1993: Roman Military Equipment.
Braund, M. ..: A Roman helmet from Kakheti (Eastern Georgia, Trans-Caucasia. (Publication u/k)
Feugere, M. 1993: Weapons of the Romans.
Feugere, M. 1994: L'equipement militaire d'epoque republicaine en Gaule, Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 5.
Junkelmann, M. 2000: Romische Helme.
Oldenstein, J. 1990: Two Roman Helmets from Eich, Alzey-Worms district, Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 1.
Robinson, H.R.R. 1975: The Armour of Imperial Rome.
Treister, M. .: Roman Military Equipment from the Kingdom of the Bosporus. (Publication u/k)