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Men of Bronze or Paper Tigers?

Jeremy S. Armstrong

University of Aukland

The traditional model has long held that, in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, ancient Roman warriors covered themselves in heavy bronze armor, turning themselves into slow-moving, invincible behemoths, who – like their Greek cousins – likely banded together into tight phalanxes. And while the argument around the early Roman use of the phalanx formation has heated up in recent years (see Rich 2007, Rosenstein 2010, and Armstrong 2016), there are few scholars who argue against the simple existence of heavy infantry in early Rome. From the tenets of the Servian Constitution, to the copious finds of bronze military equipment from sites around Central Italy (Veii, Tarquinia, Lavinium, Paestum, etc.), the evidence for ‘heavy infantry’ in archaic Rome seems unequivocal. But is it?

This paper will suggest that the answer is far more complex than it initially appears, and will work to problematize the role of bronze armor in both the definition of ‘heavy infantry’ and in supporting its presence in Italy. Specifically, it will use recent analyses conducted on military equipment finds from the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia in Rome, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Paestum, and items in private collections, to explore what detailed study of bronze military equipment finds from archaic Italy can actually tell us. Two key points will be made based on initial findings. 

First, it will confirm what scholars like Krentz have recently argued looking at the Greek world: that the weight of bronze military equipment is often (massively) overestimated. While a range obviously exists, most individual pieces of equipment examined in the collections weighed less than 2 kg each, and usually closer to 1 kg. Thus the total weight for an Italian warrior’s equipment, even with the full, traditional panoply – helmet, cuirass, shield (aspis), greaves, spear, and sword, would certainly fall within Krentz’s (2013, p. 135) recent suggestion of 14-21kg. This stands in stark contrast to the oft cited figure of 31kg put forward by Rüstow and H. Köchly (1852), and still often followed in modern scholarship. 

Second, with this light weight came thinness. Many of the pieces of bronze equipment examined – and particularly those from before the fourth century BCE – were only between 1 and 1.5 millimeters thick. It is therefore highly likely that, as has been well attested previously for the aspis (Bardunias and Ray, 2016), many pieces of bronze military equipment would have represented little more than a thin, decorative shell which was placed over what was likely the true strength of the armor: layers of organic materials (presumably leather and felt). 

 Thus, in conclusion, the paper will suggest that bronze equipment from Italy in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE – although often used as a key piece of evidence for ‘heavy infantry’ – is actually not as straightforward an indicator as many have suggested.  While work is still ongoing, and the sample of items is by no means either comprehensive or fully representative, preliminary study suggests that, in this period, bronze needs to be considered as only part of a warrior’s defensive system – and perhaps a largely decorative part. 

Session/Panel Title

The Roman Army During the Republican Period

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