Roman Legion: Tactics, Armor & Weapons

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

You will learn about the armor, types of weapons, and the tactics used in the Roman military. Most of the equipment mentioned was used by the typical legionnaire in the Roman army.

The Roman Army: An Overview

In the early years of the Roman Republic, the army was a volunteer, citizen army. Only Roman citizens could possibly serve at this time, as well. However, by the end of the Republic and into the years of the Roman Empire, the lands possessed by the Romans became so large that it became difficult to maintain this sort of army. Instead of signing up for specific lengths of time in the army, prospective soldiers now promised a certain number of years of service. While volunteers could still be accepted, many young men were now conscripted into the military, and many of them were not Roman citizens. As the borders of Rome expanded, the military had to rely on the men from the Roman provinces to serve. The only requirement at this time was that they were free citizens.

Armor and Shields

There were several layers to the typical armor worn by the legionnaires of the Roman military. It's estimated that the average legionnaire carried 60 to 100 pounds of armor and weapons. The first layer was the tunica, or tunic worn under all the layers of armor. A scarf, called a focale would also be worn to protect the neck from rubbing against the metal armor. Worn around the waist were two items. The first was a leather belt, called a balteus. The second was a leather apron with some metal plates, called a sporran. The actual functionality of the sporran is unknown. While pants or trousers were not typically worn, those soldiers traveling to colder climates sometimes wore a bracae, or skin tight wool or leather trousers that reached only to the knees. As for shoes, sturdy, leather sandals with iron treads, called caligae were worn. The third Roman Emperor, who often accompanied his father in the military as a child was given the nickname Caligula, meaning 'little boot.'

When it came to the outer-worn armor, the galea, or helmet is one of the most recognizable. It could offer protection to not just the head, but also the neck, and parts of the face. There were three types of metal armor worn on the chest. The first was the lorica hamata, or chain mail, which was flexible, but hard and expensive to make. The second development in armor was the lorica segmentata, or plate armor made of pieces of iron bound together. This too was expensive to make. Finally, there was the loricae squamatae, or scale armor, which was made of overlapping bronze or iron scales. Though this was the cheapest of the three, it was also the least flexible, making it not always a favored choice. The last piece of armor was the scutum, or the shield. This was made of several, thin layers of wood glued together, bound by bronze or iron on the outside, and covered with leather on the outside. Each Roman legion had its own color scheme and symbols on its shield to help identify each other, and each legionnaire often had their name on the shield.

This is a replica of typical armor worn by Roman soldiers. Note that this particular example has the lorica segmentata, or plate armor.
Roman Armor


There were three main weapons used by the Roman soldiers, each serving its own purpose. For long distance combat, a pilum was used. This was a long javelin, known for being fairly lightweight. It was roughly seven feet long, the last three feet being made of the iron point. The secondary weapon was the gladius, or short sword, from which the word 'gladiator' came from. The gladius was a short sword, roughly 18 inches long and double-edged. This could be used for close-range combat. As a last resort, there was the pugio, a small 7 to 11 inch dagger, used only if all other weapons were not available.

An example of a Roman gladius.
A Roman Gladius

Military Tactics

The Romans were also well known for having an incredibly systematic organization of their military. The default military formation for a legion involved having the cavalry ride along the front and side flanks of the rest of the legion. This was followed by two rows of five cohorts of heavy infantry. Behind them was a row of light infantry, and then the reserve forces. However, there were several alterations to this formation to adapt to different attack styles from the enemy.

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