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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.*

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.+ 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?

*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.

+For further debate refer to the appendix in Bishop and Coulston, 1993.

An Imperial-Gallic helmet belonging to the society, reconstructed from an original found at Mainz, Germany.