Roman Living History Society


The Legion








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Written by: Dave Galvin


Soldiers on horseback provide mobility and speed to an army commander. Apart from the fortunate wealthy few in Republican times who could afford to provide a horse the army consisted of stocky landowners, men who marched to war, fought a summer campaign and then returned home. This system continued until Rome's expansion brought it into conflict with different modes of warfare. Their large, highly disciplined but static legions now stood before far quicker squadrons of cavalry and even elephants. The war against Hannibal 218-202 BC, and Crassus' defeat at Carrhae in 53 BC against the Parthians for example.

Not wishing to be outdone, Rome's expansion, as piecemeal as it was proving to be prior to the change to imperial times brought it into contact with horse dominant societies. Tribes were cajoled, bribed or forced into service alongside the legions. Young men from over much of central Europe were seeing places that they had never dreamt of, fighting for a city they had never seen. Its pay and citizenship being the reward.

By the time of the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43 and there afterwards, the use of horses to augment the legions was well developed. This is testified by the tombstones of Longinus in Colchester and Genialis in Cirencester. The Ala Prima Thracum is also noted alongside the II Augusta at Carleon.

An approximate disposition of cavalry to legions would be in the order of 2:1. Two ala to every legion. Under the Emperor Augustus for example Hispania had 3 legions and 7 alae; Germania 10 legions and 16 alae; Dalmatia and Panonnia 6 legions with 7 alae. By the time of Claudius Britannia had 4 legions with 9 alae (mostly drawn from Germania and Panonnia), Germania 8 legions and 10 alae, Hispania 2 legions and 6 alae.

Horses were sent to where they were needed and especially to where warfare was still being waged in newly won territories and to where operating wide scale in remote mountainous regions was proving difficult for the legions. Horsemen and light armoured auxiliaries provided a more flexible military tool. Their mobility sent them further from their bases and could as such scatter and disperse enemy forces hiding from the Roman legions and the inevitable set piece pitched battle.

The Numbers of Cavalry.

Always bearing in mind that a single inscription or tombstone may not collectively attest to the presence of an entire cavalry unit, there are some 18 known to have served in Britain at one time or another. The greater number of 58 refers to mixed units of horses, infantry or specialist infantry only i.e. archers or scouts. The mixed units could be shuffled around to suit requirements whilst an ala, a wing of cavalry, remained predominantly just that.

The ala group consisted of approximately 500 men; a quingenaria. This was broken down into 16 turmae (squadrons), each of 30 men plus an officer (decurion), second in command (duplicarius), third in command (sesquiplicarius), and a standard carrier (a signifer). A praefectus equituum commanded the group overall. The naming of a unit followed the pattern of either recording its place of recruitment i.e. Thrace (ala Thracum), or of recording its first recruiting commander i.e. Titus Pomponius Petra (ala Petriana). Larger cavalry forces existed, 1000 men strong (an ala milliaria) yet these were scarce and allotted to certain provinces only owing to the cost of maintaining them and to the more pressing problem, that being a usurper using them against the legitimate armies of Rome. Britain had only the one serving Hadrian's Wall and its environs. This was the ala Petriana based at Stanwix (Uxellodunum) the largest fort on the wall and situated in the West.

There were smaller cavalry units (equites legionis), 120 men strong and these were allocated to the legions and acted as scouts and messengers. Another branch of the army was the Equites Singularis, a handpicked unit of horsemen chosen to protect either the Emperor or his Governors on their travels.

The Weapons of a Cavalryman.

Consist of a long slashing sword (spatha) some 26-36 inches long and 1.5-3 inches wide. This was carried on the right hand side of the body.

Often roman commanders liked to use their cavalry after infantry engagements to run down those trying to flee the battle. The sword here would come into its own and the lighter armed cavalrymen be more adept at chasing fugitives than their heavily armoured colleagues. Charging at ranks of massed infantry with heavily armoured horsemen occurred at a slightly later date but in the 1st Century AD it would have proved useless, unless the enemy had been broken into smaller groups fighting to the death.

A shield (clipeus) was carried in the left hand during combat and was constructed of flat plywood with a bronze or leather edging. It gave almost total body protection to the horseman and where it could not, greaves were bought by those wealthy enough, to protect the lower leg. A large central boss protected the hand. Shields could be oval, round or hexagonal decorated with the unit colours or religious tokens. The hand used to hold the reins i.e. the left hand, also held the shield in combat at the same time. A consummate skill.

A javelin was carried as the main strike weapon (hasta). It was approximately 6 feet long with a leaf shaped spearhead made of iron. Not initially intended for throwing it was a stabbing and thrusting weapon. Smaller javelins (lanceae) were used for throwing and a quiver of these would be slung over the saddle horn for the cavalryman to withdraw as necessary.

As regards clothes he wore a pair of leather trousers (femenalia), a tunic (tunica) and a light coat of chain mail (lorica hamata or lorica squamata). The chain mail was waist length to aid dismounting and was double folded across the shoulders. On his head for protection was an iron or bronze helmet with cheek pieces and a neck guard. On his feet he wore either open sandals or boots (caligae). Spurs may also have been used.

The Horse's Tack.

The all-important saddle had no stirrups. These were replaced by the use of 4 horns on the saddle itself, which offered a great sense of security, as the horseman could not fall out. However, if unseated, then regaining the saddle could be a problem yet we are told that in training a horse could be mounted by the rider whilst at a canter. Certainly whilst standing still simply by jumping on much as we would jump onto a vaulting horse today.

The saddle was held in place by a simple girth and prevented from moving by the addition of a breast strap and breech strap around the animal's bottom. Some harnesses were decorated with religious tokens e.g. lunate and phalera pendants. They symbolised the femininity of the moon and its opposite, the masculinity of the sun.

In the animal's mouth sat the bit. This one here is a copy of one found at Newstead, Scotland, and is commonly known as a twisted straight bar snaffle and made of iron. The twisted central section sat in the horses mouth over its tongue and gum; the loop below sat in the chin groove and was designed to prevent the animal from opening its mouth and escaping the action of the bit. The small iron bars on the side fitted to the bridle cheek pieces and ran over the sensitive poll area behind the horses ears. When the rains were jerked, the bars would rotate downwards and exert pressure on the poll.

The star shaped prickers were designed to again act on the sensitive areas of the horse's lips. Pull on one side of the rein and the animal would respond by moving in that direction. It was extremely clumsy and brutal in its design and application.

A subtler bit was the curb (not featured) although excessive or over zealous use would destroy the horse's palate as the action was very simplistically that of a spoon rotating in a horizontal and vertical plane and pressing against the roof of the mouth. Sometimes featured on tombstones, as an item of horse ware is the psalion, a strip of flat metal joining one side of the bit to the other across the soft part of the horse's muzzle. Once again it prevents the animal from escaping the bit and doubles up as a means of control by exerting pressure on the nose via the action of pulling the reins.

Finally, more common plain jointed snaffle bits were used. These are far kinder but it can be conjectured that as stallions were prized for their bravery in battle then absolute mastery was a must, and the tack used reflected this. We can only look through modern eyes.

An Important Visitor.

A bored military was a double-edged sword and it could and often did stir up trouble. Therefore a soldier's life especially in a restless province was one inured to constant drill and practice, more so when led by a vigorous governor or warlike emperor. Practice could simply be routine patrols. The exertions of living in the field for a short while and getting to know your animal may have sufficed. Riding over rough country coupled to a little hunting when back in barracks may have honed the skills necessary to be a cavalryman.

However there came special days, when the Provincial Governor having given notice of his visit or more rarely the Emperor himself would turn up. These were days for being judged just as Hadrian judged those in the deserts of North Africa. To add spectacle to the occasion many varied tactics were practiced, by horsemen wearing elaborate facemasks and horses dressed in leather chamfrons with bronze eye guards. Reds, blues, purples and yellows proliferating in a riot of colour.

The games (hippika gymnasia), were designed to test the agility and accuracy of weapons training. Horsemen riding counter-rotating circles, and then changing to ride the opposite way threw blunt spears against lightweight shields. But how do we know this? A man called Flavius Arrianus Xenophon (more commonly known as Arrian) has left us a detailed account of these tactics written in AD 136. This is known as the 'Ars Tactica' and was commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian.

Again items of exquisite luxury have been found in Britain. A full-face sports helmet from Ribchester along with the Vindolanda chamfron attests silently to the pageantry that must have accompanied a cavalryman whilst stationed at the fort. Most of these had a parade ground a short distance away from the safety of the walls and any wayward Briton sneaking a view could not fail to have been overawed by the spectacle.

The cavalry mask could either be a one-piece helmet hinged above the brow and tied at the base of the neck or a detachable one where the mask and helmet separated, the mask being carried in a bag between postings. The one featured here is the former and once again would be carried with extreme care owing to its expense. Its construction renders it useless for battle as it is of lightweight bronze or iron construction silvered over the more decorative areas of the face and head. It would have been handcrafted to suit and designed as either male or female. This could have possibly represented the legends of the battles between the Greeks and Amazons of old, legends themselves the Romans were very fond of. Yellow plumes were the order of the day as detailed by Arrian.

The fact that helmets have been discovered as far afield as Scotland, Germany, Romania and Syria all bearing different designs, tells us a lot about the cavalry trooper - boys, women, iron, bronze, hair, diadems, teardrops, peaks, crest holders etc; the variety was enormous. The soldier was not the homogenous commodity we like to think he was. He was an individual expressing his own national identity a long way from home.

The chamfron, the leather horse mask, is again thought to be parade wear and unsuitable for battle. Its decoration is in metal studs and the horseman's unit stitched below the eyes on a label called the tabula ansata. The eye guards are of bronze and stitched to the mask although pairs of these have been found separately with the suggestion that they were attached to the bridle only and may have been worn in combat. The mask is tied to the bridle and is detachable and may have on occasions been made of bronze plates hinged to fit around the horses face although these are of a later date.

A Good Life.

A citizen soldier could transfer to the non-citizen auxiliary cavalry units from the legions. Generally though tribal groups were enlisted en masse (Marcus Aurelius sending some 5,500 Sarmatians to Britain as part of a peace treaty). They were promised regular pay and citizenship upon discharge, which followed 25 years service. Normal citizens could also apply and would have to come with letters of recommendation as well as satisfying certain physical requirements e.g. eyesight, height, occupation etc. Weavers and basket makers would be discouraged!

Four months basic training would then follow (probatio) to see if the recruit was at all suitable. Good food and a roof over his head during the winter months coupled to a medical corps, ensured that the trooper remained fit, active and available to serve. Naturally in times of war, food and resources were allocated to the military long before being given to the civilian population. You then settled down to your 25 years often in a country that was alien to you and away from your family. Discouraged from marrying, you would have a common law wife (often native) living outside the fort in the Vicus (civilian settlements that clung to a fort). You maybe had children that would follow you in your profession. Land ownership would also be discouraged yet with the aid of servants this could be farmed by proxy. Unlike citizen soldiers, the auxiliary did not receive grants of land or money upon discharge.

Whether you threw a spear in anger or not depended upon the province in which you served and the state of affairs at the time. There were often long periods of boring peace.

When it all ended, and a record of when it started had been kept, you were allowed to go, a new fledgling citizen with legal and financial rights. A bronze diploma was awarded to you and upon this your service record and awards for bravery noted. This was effectively the story of your Roman military life. What is more you could now refer to yourself in the Roman fashion of taking three names (praenomen, nomen and cognomen) instead of the military usage of one Roman name coupled to your tribal name.

Returning home depended upon where you were in the Empire and where you had come from but in the age old fashion of sending tribal groups far from their homeland and sympathies meant that it was a long journey for which the army was not going to pay for. Now accustomed to your adopted land and able to communicate in mediocre Latin, surrounded by familiar religious army tokens meant that for many ex-soldiers retirement meant staying close to the fort in which they had served.

Jump to:

The Numbers of Cavalry
The Weapons of a Cavalryman
The Horses Tack
An Important Visitor
A Good Life
The Whole Document