Reconstructing the appearance of the Roman legionaries in the Middle Republican era is anything but simple and obvious, given that the iconographic sources of Roman origin of the period are decidedly scarce: tomb frescoes are very rare, almost non-existent other types of pictorial works useful for reconstructing their decorative and chromatic aspect.
However, it is not completely impossible to get a plausible idea of the appearance of these shields, using, in addition to the few Roman sources available, the critical comparison with contemporary sources of Hellenistic culture and the interpolation with immediately preceding or subsequent sources. This research originated for a museum reconstruction dating back to 225 BC. circa, which required precisely this diachronic approach for a reconstruction that had the greatest probability of approaching historical reality, with a methodology very similar to that adopted to reconstruct the appearance of a Roman consul at the time of the Second Punic War.
This brief research therefore circumscribes the field to the period included, roughly, between the First Punic War and the Augustan period, regarding the shields usually used by the legionaries, i.e. oblong shields, generally oval, flat or convex, in this later case similar to the famous find from Kasr El Harit (also known as from Fayum).
Fortunately, on an important point the available sources are very much in agreement: the background colour was almost always white or in any case very light in colour.
Most likely the reason for this omnipresence of the white background was due to the fact that the materials used to cover the outside of the shields were mainly of a very light natural colour. Hoplitic shields from tombs of the Hellenistic necropolis of Vergina, show two layers of linen glued with pitch and externally coated with a mixture of plaster, white clay and glue, which obtained the result of giving consistency and protection to the fabric covering. Both of these materials, linen and gypsum-based stucco, in nature have a very light colour and very close to white.
Even a possible covering in rawhide (we know for example that Polybius speaks of this material for the shields of the Roman cavalry) or in naturally tanned leather would have had an extremely pale colour (similar to parchment).
Furthermore, one reason to further whiten these materials was certainly the positive value attributed to the high visibility of the shields themselves. In fact, in the ancient type of war, based on pitched battles fought by specially deployed armies, camouflaging had no particular value, on the contrary, the ostentation of showy armaments had an important psychological effect.
Last but not least, in roman culture as in many contemporary others, the white colour had an important religious meaning.
Although many of the shields of which we have colour representations are completely plain and unadorned, we have some suggestions relating to the possible heraldry of the same from another source, unfortunately, however, achromatic: coinage.
The symbol of the thunderbolt, the weapon of the father of the gods so recurrent on the much more well-known shields of the high empire, is actually a symbol of Hellenistic origin, in use since the third century BC also in the Roman iconography.
On its actual use as heraldry on shields, a relief from the stele with warrior and shield from Mysia Abbaitis in Phrygia, present-day Turkey, from the second half of the second century BC, testifies it. Despite the consumption, the wings and arrow-headed rays of lightnings can still be distinguished.
In the 2nd century BC some coins show us the use, for example, of radiated decorations which in all likelihood represent the symbol of the eight-pointed star (a very popular and widespread symbol during the Hellenistic period but also well attested previously), also known from the so-called sword of San Vittore, a Gallic-type sword forged in Rome between the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, and bearing a decoration depicting two eight-pointed stars and an inscription.
The use of 8-pointed star decoration is also documented in Campania, in the 4th century. BC, it is therefore possible that this type of symbolism was already adopted at least from the third century BC also on the Roman shields.
Some coins from the early 1st century BC show a very simple decoration, which could perhaps be traced back to a very simplified representation of the winged thunderbolt. In fact, the representation shows us a divinity, Juno Sospita, one of the Roman divinities who was recognized the prerogative of hurling lightning: the religious symbolic role of the shield is evident, since it is depicted with the shape of the sacred ancile (the magical shield fallen from heaven at the time of Numa Pompilius).
This representation, however, immediately recalls one of the few coloured representations that we have, which has a similar decoration, very simple and not traceable to the thunderbolt. This is the depiction of a trophy with shields in the Nilotic-themed mosaic of the Antro delle Sorti, a natural cave near the forum of ancient Praeneste, attributable to Alexandrian artists who made it on site at the end of the second century BC. In view of the chronological proximity, it is very plausible that it was a similar symbol, if not the same.
The motif however shows an evident reference to the much more ancient depictions of the bundle of lightnings, represented on the already seen Roman-Campanian trients of the third century, of which it could ultimately constitute the final stylization.
A very similar decorative motif is still used for a shield on one of the metopes of the Munatius Plancus mausoleum in Gaeta. The mausoleum can be dated to the passage between the Cesarian age and the Augustan age. In the Augustan age, beyond the temporal limits observed here, the decorative motifs will vary significantly following a general evolution of Roman figurative art.
As for the colours used for the decorations, being able to rely only on the information available here, we can hypothesize the use of blue and red, which in ancient times were considered the most prestigious and most recurring colours in decorations, since archaic times. In fact, we see in one of the very few depictions of shields decorated in fresco from Pompeii, which, although more recent than the period considered here, proposes shields again with a white background colour, with red and blue decorations; as well as blue are the decorations of the shield in the Nilotic mosaic from Palestrina. In the Pompeian fresco, the interior of one of the shields is also clearly painted blue, like, a couple of centuries later, one of the shields from Dura Europos: the only Roman shields that have survived.
In the current state of knowledge, the reconstruction of the appearance of the Roman oblong shields of the Middle Republican period, and of the Hellenistic counterparts, provides for a large prevalence of white or very light-coloured shields, completely plain with no decorations. It is likely that, although in a decidedly minority way, some type of decoration was also applied and, in this case, the most likely decorations would be the following:
- Stylized thunderbolt, with or without wings
- Eight (or more) pointed star (Argead star)
- Geometric rayed symbol
- Geometric symbol “ondulated X”, perhaps an extreme stylization of the thunderbolt.
The colours of the decorations were likely to have been blue and red.
For the inside of the shields, is presumed a light colour like the outside, similar to what is depicted on the Nilotic mosaic, or perhaps an intense blue, as depicted and actually used in later shields.
Some reconstructive graphical hypotheses are proposed below according to what proposed above.
(and soon, some surprise about these on our website! Stay tuned on our social media pages and check out the “Shield” section of the shop).
G. Canestrelli, A Roma da Cartagine. La spada e lo scudo del legionario repubblicano, 2021 [link al libro]
Jean-Luc Féraud, ‘The Mulis Marianis reenacted’, Ancient Warfare V.1, 2011.
E. Polito, Fulgentibus Armis. Introduzione allo studio dei fregi d’armi antichi, 1998.
Striy. Historic Clothing Studies, n.1 (2019) http://striy.org.ua/index.php/striy/announcement/view/2