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Beyond Celtic: Panoply and Identity in the Roman Republic

Michael Taylor

University at Albany, SUNY

This paper examines how the Roman army in the early Republic adopted a Celtic panoply, in the process abandoning Greek-style hoplite equipment. This paper considers Roman panoply as a cultural problem, and examines the links between the distinct visual appearance of Roman legionaries and how this was deployed to articulate both Rome's national identity as well as its waxing Mediterranean hegemony.

The first part details the Celtic origins of the major pieces of Rome’s new military equipment: sword (gladius), shield (scutum), javelin (pilum), mail armor and Montefortino helmet. While the Celtic origins of many of these items is relatively well established, the cultural implications of the panoply deserve scrutiny, especially given how shifts in panoply might reflect and even constitute cultural identity (Taylor 2017). Indeed, one curious result of the new panoply was that a Roman legionary appeared very similar to a Gallic warrior, even at the time when the Romans, along with their Hellenistic counterparts, were starting to fashion the Celts as the ultimate "Other" (Marszal 2000).

The next section seeks possible military and cultural explanations for the new panoply, suggesting among other factors that the new kit may have been driven by mass recruitment from outside of the narrow hoplite class. While the new panoply worked well with the new manipular tactics of the period, the paper argues that the adoption of the new equipment was largely disconnected from manipular tactics. The Romans most likely did not seek emulate the flashy aesthetic of Celtic warriors (on the model of 19th century Zhouves), and indeed often toned down Celtic decorative motifs on the models they adopted. The paper concludes that the adoption of Celtic military equipment may have been a coincidence, as Celtic gear became widely available precisely at the same time (fourth century BC) as Rome began to recruit from a wider portion of its citizen body, drafting men who had no tradition of using Greek-style hoplite equipment (Armstrong 2017 for the pilum).

The panoply eventually coalesced into a symbol of specifically Roman identity, especially as the Romans deployed distinctively equipped armies into Magna Graeca and the Hellenistic East. The new panoply was increasingly identified by the Greeks as Roman: this includes the Montefortino helmet on the Entella VI (Ampolo B1) tablet and the scutum-type shield and Celtic sword carried by the goddess Roma on the third century coin minted by Rhegion. The Romans themselves started using their visually distinctive military equipment to articulate their own hegemony. After proclaiming "freedom for the Greeks," Flamininus deposited his personal scutum at Delphi (Plut. Flam. 12.6), while the Pydna monument of Aemilius Paullus celebrated the panoply of Paullus' legionaries (Taylor 2016). To paraphase Denis Feeney (2016), the borrowed panoply was now "Beyond Celtic," associated not with Celtic warriors, but with Roman identity and hegemony. 

Session/Panel Title

The Roman Army During the Republican Period

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