During the course of History, displaying wealth and a good appearance has always been a mean to materially show status and power.
This behaviour is also widespread in the military world, particularly in the Ancient world, and even more particularly in the Roman army. If modern days armies often have efficient but inconspicuous gear, warriors and soldiers of the past did use various means to make themselves showy and terrific on the battlefield (crests, decorations, clothes of specific colours, etc.).
For the Romans, the simplest mean to show themselves terrific to the enemy was to wear their military gear as gleaning, shining and clean as possibile – a practice well known to other cultures as well: for instance, the Romans at Carrhae were astonished by the sudden view of the shining armours of Surena’s cataphracts.
A clean and shining military equipment had not only was a psychological deterrent against the enemy, but it was also a mean for the Roman soldier to show his martiality and efficiency.
Onasander, in his Strategikós, writes:
“The general should make it a point to draw up his line of battle resplendent in armour— an easy matter,requiring only a command to sharpen swords and to clean helmets and breast-plates. For the advancing companies appear more dangerous by the gleam of weapons, and the terrible sight brings fear and confusion to the hearts of the enemy.”
The urgency to have shining, and therefore clean, arms and armours is repeated several times also in the much later work of Vegetius:
“Nothing does so much honor to the abilities or application of the tribune as the appearance and discipline of the soldiers, when their apparel is neat and clean, their arms bright and in good order […]”
(Epitoma rei militaris, 2,12)
“[…] the Decurion is to be preferred […] for his care in obliging them to keep their cuirasses, lances and helmets always bright and in good order. The splendor of the arms has no inconsiderable effect in striking terror into an enemy. Can that man be reckoned a good soldier who through negligence suffers his arms to be spoiled by dirt and rust?”
(Epitoma rei militaris, 2, 14)
This notion is also clarified in the Strategikon written by Emperor Maurice Tiberius (6th century AD). The author not only writes about the necessity to cover armours with cloaks or similar devices during patrols to make them not visible on the distance because of their shine, but he also writes about the false believe, apparently widespread in that period, that a less “shiny” army would have been more victorious:
“We find that the Romans and almos all other peoples when observing each other’s battle lines from a distance generally pick out the gloomy-looking line as more likely to win the battle than the one in gleaming armour. This common view is clearly wrong […]”
(Strategikon, 7, B, 15)
Ancient sources not onyl dealt with cleanliness and shine of arms and armours of the Romans. Even excluding the archaeological finds of decorated arms and armours (even the ones probably belonging to the troop), written sources clarify that Roman soldiers had no problems in going to battle with heavily decorated equipments, and that they took great care in the aesthetic component of their military gear.
So, for instance, writes Suetonius about Caesar:
“[…] [Caesar] kept them [the soldiers] in fine trim, furnishing them with arms inlaid with silver and gold, both for show and to make them hold the faster to them in battle, through fear of the greatness of the loss.”
(De Vita Caesarum, Caesar, 67)
The probably clearest text about the great value of the aesthetic component of the military gear is a famous passage of the Strategikon that, even after five centuries, is still in line with the words of Onasander:
“For the more handsome the soldier is in his armament, the more confidence he gains in himself and the more fear he inspires in the enemy.”
(Strategikon, I, 2)