Cingulum or balteus?
How did the Roman legionary carry his sword?
Nowadays, “cingulum” defines a wide belt from which the gladius hanged on the side of the owner, while “balteus” is used to define a baldric used to hang the sword to one the shoulders, crossing the soldier’s chest.
The way to carry the sword changed multiple times, during the long history of the Roman army, as it could be expected from such a long period of time, during which many ways of fighting and fashions changed multiple times.
The cingulum-belt and balteus-baldric systems did alternate between one another many times in different periods.
So, to have a sufficiently defined image, we have to focus on a short, limited period of time.
The suspension system of gladius in the Early Empire
Since the beginning of the Iron Age, the use of a wide belt – eventually decorated with metal plaques ot completely made out of metal – represented one of the main status symbols of the warrior in the Italian peninsula.
This long cultural tradition remained unchanged in the military ancient Italic tradition, apparently without interruption. The Roman soldier was obviously included in such a tradition.
The most known period for the Roman military belt is surely the Early Empire (1st-2nd century AD). The military belt was a wide strip of leather with metal plaques attached to it. These plaques not only had an obvious decorative function, meant to show the wealth of the owner, but served also to stiffen the leather, so that the belt couldn’t roll under the weight of the weapons hanging from it.
Such plaques were attached on the front part of the belt, or also along its entire lenght.
The military belt was usually matched with a sort of “apron“, made by leather stripes, decorated with metal plaques, strap-ends and pendants, hanging vertically from the belt itself. This “apron” had probably a merely decorative function; it originated from the part of the belt hanging from the buckle, on the front, a fashion from the previous period. Buckles were usually worn near the belly button, to the right or the left of the “apron“.
Nowadays, the word cingulum is used to define the belt from which the sword hanged. However, its original name was probably balteus, not cingulum. Maybe only from the 2nd century AD the belt became the cingulum, while balteus was used to define the baldric to hang the sword, crossing the soldier’s chest from the right shoulder to the left hip, so introducing a new military fashion – fashion which didn’t replace the previous one, but that went alongside it for a long period of time: visual sources show very clearly that hanging the sword from the belt was widely used until 3rd century and beyond.
During the Early Empire, it was common to use even two military belts. Such a use was probably linked to the introduction of the pugio in the Roman panoply.
This short dagger was adopted during the Hispanic wars of the 2nd century BC, by imitating the Iberian warriors who had it.
Originally it was worn on the same military belt from which the gladius hanged, on the front and horizontally, imitating the Iberian fashion. In such a way, there was a sole suspension system for both the gladius (on the right for soldiers, on the left for centurions) and the pugio.
This suspension system is clearly depicted, for instance, the stelae of Minucius Lorarius, centurion of the Legio Martia Tertia. The stelae is dated ca. half of the 1st century BC, and is now in the Archaeological Museum in Padova.
Probably from the 1st century AD, looking at the sources, the Romans began to use a second belt to hang the pugio, maybe to better balance the weight on the hips or, maybe, only to flaunt richness and wealth.
Many sculptural representations show the pair of belts worn slightly angled, crossing on the front and leaning on the side from the which the weapons are hanged.
Sometimes, the belts were instead worn one parallel to the other, with one of the two being slightly above the other.
Being mainly a fashion matter, we can identify trends, but no strict rule. Personal taste was probably the main factor determining look and use.
Both cingulum for gladius and pugio are often represented by themselves, not worn, particularly in funerary sculptures. From these visual sources, we can deduce that the gladius was permanently attached to the belt, while the pugio hanged from the belt by leather strips, used to connect the scabbard to two buttons, attached by means of hinges to the plaques of the suspension belt.
The gladius-cingulum system was apparently considered to be an indissoluble unity: to disarm itself meant to take off both the belt and the gladius.
The pugio, on the base of the archaeological finds, was seemengly widespread on the Germano-Danubian limes, in Britain and Hispania, while it cannot be found in other provinces. From Herculaneum come the remains of a soldier equipped with a double belt, with both gladius and dagger. The latter, however, reproduces the shape of a gladius, showing no similarity at all with the pugio of Hispanic origin. So, it’s highly plausible that there were also less attested typologies; but it’s also highly plausible that the short weapon, and so its cingulum, was not universally used by all the Roman legions.
Fabrizio Casprini, Marco Saliola , “Pugio Gladius Brevis Est: History and Technology of the Roman Battle Dagger”, 2012.
Stefanie Hoss, “A Theoretical Approach To Roman Military Belts”, 2010
Stefanie Hoss, “The Roman Military Belt”, in “Wearing the Cloak: Dressing the Soldier in Roman Times”, 2012
Stefanie Hoss “Cingulum Militare : Studien zum römischen Soldatengürtel des 1. bis 3. Jh. n. Chr.”, 2014
Replicas we used in our reconstruction (click to see):