PTERUGES AND THE LORICA SEGMENTATA: THE EVIDENCE
By T. Flavius Crispus / David S. Michaels
Pteruges: What are they?
Pteruges (pronounced “ter-OO-gees,” Greek for “feathers”) are flexible strips of layered leather or fabric that hang from the waist and shoulders of many forms of classical armor, forming a “kilt” protecting a soldier’s lower torso, thighs, and upper arms.
They first appear in the early 5th century BC Greek panoply as part of the linothorax, a cuirass (torso armor) made of thick, layered linen. The cuirass was made in the form of a tube covering the chest and abdomen. The lower edge of this “tube” was apparently cut into strips, and the strips subsequently bent outward a bit, to allow the hips and groin area a little “give.”
Within a few decades, pteruges had evolved into a double or even triple row of strips that were apparently attached to some kind of under-armor garment (called a thormachus or subarmalis). Separate rows of narrower strips were attached to the armholes of the undergarment to protect the upper arms. A muscle cuirass was worn over this undergarment, completing the Classical Greco-Roman panoply made famous via countless paintings, sculptures and motion pictures.
The Romans inherited this basic panoply from the Etruscans and Italian Greeks. The muscle cuirass with pteruges at shoulder and waist remained the standard kit for Roman officers for an incredibly long period, from ca. 450 BC to well after AD 450.
While numerous statues and bas reliefs depict Roman soldiers and officers wearing pteruges in great detail, we know surprisingly little about the maerial from which they were made. Reportedly, a close inspection of some statuary shows a fabric-textured surface, perhaps indicating at least some pteruges were made of layered linen (recalling their origin with the linothorax). The ones at the waist appear in most cases to be rectangular, between 1.5” and 2” wide, and perhaps 16” to 18” long. They almost always display evidence of stitching running around the outside edge, and most show a fringe of some kind at the bottom edge. The fringe appears to be made of twisted filaments (in other words, rope or yarn-like) below the bottom of each strip. The bottom edge of the muscle cuirass often has a row or multiple rows of flexible “scallops” which form a transition to the pteruges below. Sometimes these “scallops” are elaborately decorated with gorgons, lion heads, or other motifs.
The few color depictions of pteruges that exist (mostly on mosaics) show them as white, supporting the layered linen theory, although leather can certainly be dyed or painted white.
It is uncertain to what extend common soldiers employed pteruges in the Republican period. A famous Italic relief ca. 350 BC showing two soldiers wearing muscle cuirasses directly over tunics, with no pteruges. The different classes of soldiers in the fighting system of Camillus (Hastati, Principes, Triari and Velites) wore little or no body armor at first; after ca. 250 BC, chain mail became the preferred armor for those soldiers who could afford it. The knee-length mail shirt provided plenty of protection for the upper thighs and seemingly obviated the need for pteruges at the waist, although since the early Roman mail short lacked sleeves, they may have been employed on the upper arms. The famous Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, ca. 100 BC, shows two Roman legionaries and a cavalryman in mail shirts with no pteruges, and an officer (a tribune or legate?) in a short muscle cuirass with a double row of pteruges at the waist.
We can deduce from the available evidence so far that, for the Romans of the Republic at least, pteruges seemed to be the mark of an officer. During the early Empire, all levels of officer, from signifier on up, wore pteruges in conjunction with mail, scale, or the venerable muscle cuirass. The famous relief depicting the Centurion Marcus Favonius Facilus in Colchester shows him wearing a mail shirt cut in the form of a muscle cuirass, with a double-row of pteruges at the waist and a single row at each shoulder. The stele of Q. Sertorius Festus, centurion of Legio XI Claudia, shows him wearing an elaborate scale cuirass with a scalloped bottom edge, transitioning to pteruges. The signifiers Gnaeus Musius and Quintus Luccius Faustus also wear mail shirts over single rows of pteruges (interestingly, both also wear belts with dangling strap-ends that later evolved into the hanging studded cingulum, or apron).
In the few cases where soldiers not identified as officers are shown wearing pteruges (e.g. the stele of Caius Castricius Victor, seen at left), the soldier is usually one with a long term of service (14 years in Victor’s case, in which case if he was not yet a duplicarius, or double-pay legionary, he was some kind of slacker!) and has other attributes which may indicate a status above that of a regular line legionary (in Victor’s case, side plumes on the helmet and a particularly ornate shield).
The Trajanic Adamclisi metopes show legionaries wearing scale and mail armor with single and double rows of pteruges (plus manicae, a laminated arm defense), but it is unclear whether we are looking at regular rankers or higher-grade legionaries (a class of “super heavy infantry” raised for this particular campaign?) in specially augmented equipment. Some of the signifers are also shown with pteruges. Curiously, despite the ubiquity of the lorica segmentata on Trajan’s column, this form of armor is not shown at all in Adamclisi. In any event, it indicates that any “rules” or “taboos” that exited limiting pteruges to higher ranks may have become blurred or simply discarded during the exigencies of continuous combat.
The lorica segmentata, introduced just before the start of the millennium, seems to have wrought a few changes in Roman military fashion. This early form of laminated, segmented plate armor provided excellent protection for the soldier’s shoulders and upper torso, but left his lower abdomen and thighs relatively exposed. It might be supposed that a subarmalis with pteruges at the waist would be worn to compensate for this deficiency, but that does not seem to have been the case in the early going, at least.
There exist very few sculptural depictions of soldiers wearing the lorica segmentata before Trajan’s Column in ca. AD 106, but archaeological evidence indicates strongly that soldiers who adopted the lorica segmentata very early took to wearing the military belt or balteus, with its dangling, studded apron of leather straps. Some experts find it intriguing that the fashion of wearing the cingulum seems to coincide wit the advent of the lorica segmentata. The suggestion is that the apron at least psychologically compensated for the lorica’s obvious lack of protection for the lower torso and upper thighs. That there are numerous depictions of mail-clad soldiers and auxiliaries also wearing the cingulum need not disprove the theory, since a fashion that started with lorica-wearing soldiers could have easily and quickly spread to all units of the army.
Trajan’s column, which tells the story of Trajan’s conquest of Dacia ca. AD 102-105, depicts nearly 300 legionaries wearing the lorica segmentata. Most of them are also wear the balteus and cingulum, although the apron is considerably shorter than seen on first-century reliefs, and almost seems vestigial. Curiously, not a single soldier is shown wearing the combination of lorica segementata and pteruges, although pteruges are shown being worn with mail, scale and muscle cuirasses. Although most of the mail-wearing legionaries and auxiliaries also sport knee-length breeches, none of the lorica-clad legionaries wear them.
The next depiction of soldiers wearing the lorica segmentata in Roman art occurs on the base of the Antonine Column in Rome, erected by Antoninus Pius in honor of his deceased wife Faustina the Elder ca. AD 141-142 (seen at right). A group of soldiers is shown standing in a circle, holding spears and standards, while a parade of cavalrymen gallops around them. These are almost certainly Praetorian guardsmen, as they are shown bearing a curved, oval shield similar to the old Republican scutum (this is thought to be a Praetorian feature). The figures of the soldiers have been somewhat “doctored” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the original worn, corroded or missing heads being replaced by new ones; the lorica-wearing bodies, however, are mostly original and intact. The loricae are more stylized and less detailed than those on Trajan’s column, but there are a couple of interesting details present: The legionaries do not wear either balteus or cingulum, they do wear knee-breeches (breccae), and the bottom edges of their loricae all show what appears to be a flexible scalloped edge like those seen on some muscle cuirasses, although no pteruges are visible below.
The Column of Marcus Aurelius, erected ca. AD 180, also depicts soldiers wearing the lorica segmentata, though in a far lower percentage than on Trajan’s Column. Several of these soldiers can clearly seen to be wearing their loricae with pteruges, in some cases combined with the scalloped edge seen on the Antonine monument. The same combination can be seen on a set of elaborate bas-reliefs removed from an Aurelian monument (AD 170-180) and reused on the Arch of Constantine in the fourth century AD (seen below left and right). Here, at last, we see at least two soldiers wearing the combination of lorica segmentata and pteruges, both at the waist and the shoulders (a third lorica-wearing soldier is partially obscured, but we can safely assume he is similarly equipped). The bottom edge of the pteruges is nicely fringed, and both soldiers are also wearing knee-breeches. The loricae themselves, in all cases, seems to be rather stylized, with far more and narrower horizontal bands than any type known from archaeology. Unfortunately, in all cases we are looking at the legionaries from the back, meaning it is difficult to tell if either soldier wears a balteus or cingulum, although there seems to be evidence of a flat, undecorated belt from the back of the figure below.
Yet further evidence exists in the form of a small bronze figure of a legionary that apparently dates from the Antonine era (the soldier wears a properly Antonine beard). His cuirass, though, again, highly stylized, is recognizably a lorica segementata. Again, he wears a full kilt of pteruges with fringed bottoms, along with knee-breeches. No balteus or apron are apparent.
The Arch of Septimius Severus shows at least two soldiers in lorica segementata, but they do not seem to be wearing pteruges, although the corroded nature of the monument leaves this open to some doubt.
The funerary stele of Marcus Aurelius Diodorus, from Hierapolis (now Pamakkale) in Turkey, seen at below left, seems highly significant to me for a number of reasons. (a) It is an extremely rare provincial relief which seems to show at least four soldiers (or four depictions of the same soldier?) wearing the lorica segmentata, and provincial art is often held to be more reliable than metropolitan propaganda monuments such as Trajan’s Column, (b) while stylized, it does show apparently accurate bits of detail, including a wider baldric, officer’s cloaks (palodumentum) pinned on the left shoulder, enclosed shoes and some form of lower-leg wrapping (or high socks?), (c) the name of the soldier, Marcus Aurelius Diodorus, seems to securely date it at least to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180) or (probably?) later, as either he or an antecedent apparently got their citizenship under Aurelius or Caracalla, (d) it appears to show the combination of lorica segmentata and pteruges. However, it should be pointed out that author Graham Sumner interprets the relief as shown eastern paramilitary policemen (diogmitoi) wearing a cloak wrapped around the body in a distinctive way which resembles the vertical and horizontal plates of the lorica segmentata.
The (apparently) final depiction we have of a Roman soldier wearing a strange form of lorica segmentata comes from the Alba Iulia monument, found in Romania. This piece of provincial sculpture shows a soldier standing in a form of cuirass which M.C. Bishop interprets as a kind of scale-segmented armor hybrid, along with a segmental arm protector (manica) covering his right arm. The figure wears the armor directly over a tunic, with no pteruges at either the waist or shoulders.
Assessing the evidence, M.C. Bishop wrote the following in Lorica Segementata Volume I: “In the Antonine period, lorica segmentata begin to be depicted being worn with pteryges [a different spelling from the Greek—dsm] similar to those found in earlier periods on muscle cuirasses and with mail and scale armor. Regardless of whether they were made of leather, stiffened leather, or some other material, they would have offered some limited protection to the upper arms and lower torso. It is logical to assume the pteryges were in fact part of an arming doublet (and they are indeed depicted as such on one of the few known representations of the garment), but the nature of the iconographic evidence (the column [sic] of Marcus Aurelius and a copper-alloy statuette), being at once metropolitan and highly decorative, is questionable to say the least. Moreover, the Alba Iulia Figure—of provincial origin and therefore more reliable as an iconographic source—is not wearing pteryges.”
While the Column of Marcus Aurelius is often described as a rather second-rate copy of Trajan’s Column, I contend that many of the depictions found on it seem to be drawn from current real life, as opposed to earlier monuments. Mail and scale are much more in evidence than on the Trajan monument, and other little details– the widespread use of knee-breeches, wider baldrics, etc.–seem to reflect the actual changes in military fashion that had occurred since Trajan’s time. I believe we can safely conclude that, by the late second century, peteruges were commonly (though not always) worn with the lorica segmentata, sometimes in combination with a scalloped lower edge as seen on the Antoninine column.
However, it is many ways a greater puzzle that pteruges were not worn with the lorica from the very start in the early first century, as it would at least partially correct the only real deficiency in this form of armor. That the combination does not seem to have been worn until very late in the life of the lorica segmentata (if at all) may be due to a prevalent feeling that pteruges were reserved for the officer class, while the lorica was seemingly employed by regular legionaries exclusively. As such, this may indicate that pteruges were regarded as more decorative than protective.
That pteruges do not appear on the Antonine monument of circa AD 141 (although a scalloped lower edge does), but are shown on the Aurelian column and reliefs some 30-40 years later may indicate that military fashion had shifted enough to allow regular legionaries to wear pteruges, or, alternatively, that officers were now wearing the lorica segmentata. The nearly continuous warfare that accompanied the reign of Marcus Aurelius, along with the many reverses suffered by the Roman army and the forced conscription of slaves, gladiators and other undesirables, may have resulted in a considerable loosening of older strictures, the blurring of lines of command, and the abandonment of old taboos.
An added consideration is the use of two other bits of accoutrement, the balteus / cingulum combination and breccae, with the lorica. Wearing the cingulum over a set of pteruges would seem to be a redundancy, although we see just such a combination on reliefs and funerary monuments of the first century AD. If Trajan’s Column is taken at face value, the dangling cingulum seems to have diminished in size between the 1st and early 2nd centuries, and by the middle of the Antonine era (AD 138-192) appears to have disappeared altogether (although a plain or decorated belt continued in use). However, from the evidence of the Antonine column and figurine, it seems likely that legionaries did wear knee-breeches with their loricae.