Arguably the most famous form of Roman body armor is the lorica segmentata, the “strip armor” seen in such films as Gladiator and Ben Hur (albeit in a very inaccurate form). It is worn by most of the regular legionaries seen on Trajan’s Column, one of the main sources we have for how a Roman army looked on campaign. At right, Jared Flery, Gil Whitley and Arik Greenburg model their Newstead-type loricae. This form of armor is also commonly seen on the Column of Marcus Aurelius and other major metropolitan sculptures in Rome, although curiously it rarely turns up on military sculpture outside the city.
The term lorica segmentata was coined in the Renaissance. We don’t know what the Romans called this form of armor, though lorica segmentata or lorica laminata are reasonable guesses. The armor is made of rectangular or polygonal plates of iron (mild steel in most modern reconstructions) bent to conform to the shape of the body and held together on the inside by a skeleton of leather straps riveted to the plates. Outside fittings such as hinges, straps and buckles, hooks and eyelets, and loops with leather ties hold the various segments of armor together and enable the soldier to don it and take it off.
Decades of painstaking archaeological excavation, conservation and study have enabled scholars and modern armorers to reconstruct the various forms of lorica segmentata with remarkable fidelity to the originals. They were greatly aided by the discovery of the Corbridge Hoard in 1964, a cache of armor and other equipment stored in two wooden boxes at the site of a Roman fort along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The pioneering work of H. Russell Robinson, the armorer for the Tower of London who did a thorough study of the Hoard and other finds, launched a series of breakthroughs that revolutionized our understanding of Roman military equipment. We now know the lorica segmentata underwent a steady evolution from ca. 10 BC through AD 250, and that several major variants emerged along the way. These variants are…
Named after the site in Germany where excavators discovered evidence of the great military debacle of Quintus Varus and his three Roman legions in AD 9, the Kalkriese type of lorica segmentata was the earliest version of this armor for which we have solid evidence. Finds at the site include one beautifully preserved breastplate with fragments of leather strapping still attached and several loose fittings. These finds helped put in context other armor fragments found elsewhere in Germany and Austria and enabled armor experts, primarily M. C. Bishop and our own Dr. Arik Greenberg, to attempt a reconstruction of the type. At left is Dr. Greenberg’s reconstruction, based on M.C. Bishop’s blueprints. As close as we can determine, the Kalkriese type was in use from circa 10 BC to about AD 50, but it is not inconceivable that examples of the type survived in use into the second century AD.
Like all subsequent types, the Kalkriese cuirass was composed of four primary sections– left and right upper shoulder, breast and back section, and the left and right girth hoops which protected the lower torso. Simple scalloped or square hinges articulated the shoulder guards and chest section, and straps and buckles (riveted directly to the plates) held the sections together and apparently closed the girth hoops. The Kalkriese cuirass is now commercially available through IMPERIVM ANCIENT ARMORY, one of our preferred suppliers.
At Corbridge, England, entire sections of twelve different cuirasses were found in a veritable Mother Lode of Roman armor. This enabled H. Russell Robinson to identify three distinct variants of cuirass, which he called Corbridge A, B and C. The overall form seems similar to the Kalkriese type, but there is considerable difference in detail and decoration. At left, Peter Hopkins wears a replica of the Corbridge A cuirass made by Deepeeka. The hinges on the upper shoulder guards and chest / back sections are now of an elaborate “lobate” form, floral bosses are used under some rivets, most strap-and-buckles on the upper sections are now hinged, and the girth hoops are now fastened down the front and back with brass loops and leather ties instead of straps and buckles. On the B and C variants, metal hooks and eyelets are used to hold the upper and lower sections together. A reconstruction of the Corbridge B variant is shown at left.
The Corbridge Hoard dates from the reign of Hadrian, and the types were in apparently use from about AD 40 through AD 140. All forms of Corbridge cuirass are therefore acceptable for use with our legion.
Named after a find in Newstead, Scotland, this type shows considerable evolutionary development from its ancestors. H. Russell Robinson believed it to be a much simplified and strengthened cuirass, being made of fewer plates, lacking the hinges and floral decorations of the Corbridge type, and eliminating all strap-and-buckle fittings.
New finds and a reinterpretation of earlier evidence by M. C. Bishop have modified Robinson’s original conception. We now know the Newstead cuirass was no “simpler” than its predecessors, but it was certainly more robust. It does indeed have hinges, but these are much larger and stronger than those on the Kalkriese or Corbridge types. The upper sections are held together with a turnkey arrangement, and the girth hoops are fastened down the front in back with a variation of the hook-and-eyelet principle. Above right, Legio VI’s own Prof. L. Arik Greenberg models his beautiful reconstruction of the Newstead cuirass, based on the latest available archaeological research. This was the first complete Newstead reconstruction based on the newest (post-1980) findings.
Below left is a rear view of Arik’s cuirass. Note the twin turnkeys that fasten the two back plates together, and the long pin used to keep the turnkeys horizontal.
Arik’s excellent article on his reconstruction of the Newstead lorica, together with more close-up photos the various components, can be accessed HERE.
The Newstead type apparently entered use in the mid AD 130s and remained the standard form of this cuirass until at least AD 250, when the chaos engulfing the Roman Empire and the disruption of the armament industry led to the abandonment of the lorica segmentata altogether. The Newstead cuirass is thus the “standard” lorica segmentata of Legio VI Victrix. We have acquired all of the components needed to build the revised Newstead lorica, which will be made available to members. Plan on about 15-20 hours or work in a reasonably well-equipped workshop to complete your cuirass. Those desiring to purchase a custom-made Newstead cuirass can contact the legion directly.
Lorica segmentata made by some suppliers are not authorized for Legio VI use! These are generally ones made for SCA combat, as they do not accurately match the originals closely enough. These can be differentiated from proper segmentatae by the large gaps evident in the underarm area, as well as plates spaced too far apart, especially on the sleeve plates, providing better coverage on the arms, but also allowing large gaps when viewed from the side. These gaps are known as “kill zones”, for obvious reasons. Another common inaccuracy is found in the placement of straps and hinges. On the Corbridge A lorica, the rear straps and buckles linking the shoulder to girth sections are located on the INSIDE of the back and girth plates, not the outside as seen on many inaccurate replicas. Check with the centurion or authenticity officer before purchasing your armor. Better yet, join up and make your own!
LORICA HAMATA (Ring Mail)
Many people are surprised to discover that the Romans used ring mail (sometimes referred to as “chain mail”), often thought of as strictly a Medieval form of armor. In fact, mail seems to have been invented in the fourth century BC, either by the Celts or the Scythians. The Romans quickly adapted this flexible and versatile form of protection to their own use, and it remained one of the primary forms of body defense from ca. 250 BC on into the Byzantine era, ca. AD 500. The Romans called ring mail hamata.
As the name implies, ring mail is composed of thousands of interlocking rings forming a “fabric” that can be tailored into a sleeveless vest, a short or long-sleeved shirt, or a long coat (hauberk). The form of Roman mail defense most common in the second century AD was a short-sleeved mail shirt, sometimes with a pointed or “dagged” hem. Roman shirts of earlier periods are usually depicted a doubling in the shoulder area and upper chest, usually in the form of two long, thick straps shaped like the shoulder fastenings of a Greek linothorax or muscle cuirass. The doubling was fastened to the front of the shirt with two studs at the terminals, and a pair of bronze or brass hooks on the chest fastened to a second set of studs on the doubling kept it from slipping apart and helped to close the neck opening. At right, Dave Michaels of Legio VI wears a mail shirt of this type, under a harness of phalarae befitting a senior centurion. While mail shirts with shoulder doubling do not appear on Trajan’s column, they are seen on the Adamklissi reliefs in Romania, which date from the same period (ca. AD 105-110). A logical conclusion is that while many of the earlier-style mail shirts with doubling were still in use, they were slowly being phased out in favor of a simpler form of mail shirt. Consequently, both doubled and undoubled mail shirts are acceptable for use with Legio VI Victrix.
By the second century AD, the lorica segementata was in widespread use throughout the Roman legions; however, mail seems to have remained the most common form of body armor for specialist troops such as standard bearers (signifiers, imagnifers, aquilifers), musicians, and centurions. Mail also remained the most common body defense for auxiliary troops, and by the later third century AD, mail had outlasted the lorica segmentata and was once again the dominant form of legionary armor.
Most Roman mail interspersed solid, stamped rings of flat cross-section with wire rings riveted shut at the terminals. Many modern makers of armor and reenactment gear are now offering fully riveted mail shirts for a relatively modest amount (between $200 and $400 for a complete shirt). While this may seem to improve the level of authenticity, beware: Most riveted mail shirts are made from stainless or galvanized (zinc-coated) steel, a definite no-no for Legio VI use. Happily, galvanization can be removed by soaking the shirt in a mild acid, such as vinegar.
An even more recent development is the appearance on the market of mail of proper Roman construction — riveted round-wire rings interspersed with solid rings of flat cross-section. These new shirts come in two sizes: 8mm and 6mm interior diameter, the latter having a particularly dense and authentic look (Dave is wearing one in the photo above). Only three years ago, such a shirt could only have been produced by a custom armorer at a price of $10,000 or more, but today they can be purchased from IMPERIVM ARMORY and other suppliers for well under $1,000!
LORICA SQUAMATA (Scale Armor)
Lorica squamata, or scale armor (sometimes called “scale mail”) consisted of hundreds or even thousands of small metal scales sewn to a fabric backing. Monuments and grave steles often depict standard bearers, centurions, and auxiliary cavalry wearing squamata, but the Adamklissi metopes also show regular legionaries wearing scale armor, augmented with laminated manica for limb protection and leather pteruges at the hips and shoulders. Scale armor shirts were sometimes shaped in the same way as a lorica hamata, mid-thigh length with shoulder doublings or cape; however, many depictions show no doubling at the shoulders.
Individual scales (“squamae”) were either iron or brass, or alternating metals. Brass scales were often tinned. The metal was fairly thin, .020″ to .032″ being a common range, but since overlapping scales reinforced each other, the overall protection was quite good. Size ranged from 1/4″ wide by 3/8″ tall up to about 2″ wide by 3″ tall. Obviously, the smaller the scale, the more were needed for full coverage. Many have rounded bottoms, while others are pointed or have flat bottoms with the corners clipped off at an angle. Scales could be flat, or slightly dished, or have a raised midrib.
Scales were wired together in horizontal rows which were then laced or sewn to the fabric backing. Each scale had from four to 12 holes for attachment to the backing and to each other. With earlier forms of scale armor, scales were attached to the backing at the top and to the other scales at the sides. In the Antonine era (AD 138-192), a new form of scale armor was introduced now called “locking scale,” in which narrow individual scales were wired to each other on all sides. Images of an authentic piece of Roman locking scale in the collection of Dave Michaels (found in a marshy area near Hadrian’s Wall) are shown above right. The scales are shown about actual side in the top images; a close-up below shows how the scales were wired together. A locking scale cuirass did not require a fabric backing, although the sharp wire stapes holding the scales together on all sides would have required some form of leather or padded undergarment to protect the wearer. The resulting cuirass would have been fairly rigid and could probably only cover the same area as a vest or short muscle cuirass. Nevertheless, this form of armor seems to have become quite popular in the late second and third centuries AD.
Unfortunately, most ready-made scale armors are made from galvanized (zinc-plated) steel and are unsuitable for use with Legio VI Victrix. However, we are in the process of creating die stamps and jigs to construct our own scale armor. Consult with the Centurio or Optio about availability and cost.
LORICA MUSCULATA (Muscle Cuirass)
The muscle cuirass is one of the earliest forms of armor, dating back in its Greek form to the sixth century BC or even earlier. At left below is a genuine early Italo-Greek muscle cuirass of the fourth or third century BC, from the Guttmann Collection. It consists of two pieces, front and back, usually of thin bronze carefully pounded into the shape of a nicely muscled male torso. The cuirass was usually closed at the side with a hinge-pin arrangement. Roman muscle cuirasses from the late Republic and Empire also have two hinged straps of metal (or perhaps thick leather) over the top of the shoulders, and secured to the upper chest with turning pins or tie-downs. During the early Republic (510-260 BC) , the muscle cuirass was apparently worn by many rank-and-file soldiers, but by the later Republic its use appears to have been restricted to senior officers of the rank of Tribune or above. There seem to be two types of muscle cuirass in common use, one which terminated in a straight line at the upper waist (the “short” version), and one with a curved extension which covered the lower abdomen.
A correctly made muscle cuirass is a difficult thing to obtain. Most of the ones widely available on eBay and through other suppliers are too heavily and inaccurately muscled, and fit most normally sized people poorly. A custom-made cuirass is the best choice as far as accuracy and comfort go, but a properly made custom cuirass can cost upwards of $1,500 and require a wait of months or years. Still, if you have a mind to try a Roman senior officer impression, the results can be spectacular. At right, Chris Ramirez models a beautiful short muscle cuirass, made by the German armorsmith Antoni Feldon, and an Attic helmet as part of his Praetorian Tribune impression.
There is some pictorial evidence which seems to suggest that at least some Roman muscle cuirasses were made of boiled leather or some other partially flexible material, such as layered linen, though this is controversial. The case for leather armor is well-presented on Travis Lee Clark’s excellent Lorica Musculata website, HERE.
SUBARMALIS (Arming Vest)
Lorica segmentata, hamata, and squamata were worn with an arming vest featuring padded shoulders, which helped distribute the weight of the armor. It also forced the shoulder sections to line-up more squarely, putting less strain on the closure strap on the pectoral plates. Ancient texts describe such an undergarment as a thoromachus (Greek) or subarmalis (Latin). What little documentation exists from ancient times suggests the garment was made of linen, felt, or leather. In some cases, leather or layered linen straps called pteruges (“feathers”) were attached to the hips and shoulders. Pteruges were apparently rarely worn with the lorica segmentata in the first century AD, but the combination is often seen on the Column of Marcus Aurelius, ca. 180, so Legio VI members have the option of attaching them to their subarmalis. An article on pteruges and the lorica segmentata can be found HERE. At left is is Jared Fleury’s subarmalis, the construction of which is covered HERE.
If you have the time and a modicum of metal-working ability, Legio VI recommends that you build your own Newstead lorica segmentata. The second best choice is to have one custom made for you; consult the legio’s Centurion and / or authenticity officers for a list of proven armorsmiths. However, if you would prefer to purchase on “off-the-shelf,” Legio VI recommends the following firms:
Imperium Ancient Armory: Arik Greenberg and Dave Michaels, 28039 Promontory Lane, Valencia, CA 91354. Phone: (310) 417-8229. Website: http://www.imperiumancientarmory.com. Email: email@example.com. Imperium enjoys “most-favored supplier” status with Legio VI not because two legio members run the business (well, maybe that has something to do with it…), but because everything they sell in the way of Roman armor is Legio VI approved as fully authentic. In addition to the Deepeeka Indian-made Corbridge lorica segmentata, Imperium also makes its own Newstead and Kalkriese types, currently unavailable anywhere else. Imperium rates everything it sells according to an “accuracy scale,” which makes it much easier to pick from among the available products. Paid Legio VI members also get price breaks on all weapons, armor and shields!
La Wren’s Nest: http://www.lawrensnest.com. They sell a decent butted mail shirt which can be modified into a Roman lorica hamata. The Deepeeka Corbridge A lorica segmentata offered on their site is also acceptable.
For more information on each, visit our SUPPLIERS PAGE