Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.11.25

Michel Feugère, Weapons of the Romans.   Stroud/Charleston, SC:  Tempus Publishing, 2002.  Pp. 224; figs. 278.  ISBN 0-7524-2506-4.  £19.99/$32.50.  

Reviewed by Duncan B. Campbell, Glasgow (

The stimulus for this book, which originally appeared in 1993 as Les armes des romains, seems to have been F.'s observation that French scholars lagged behind in military equipment studies. His zeal to restore national pride is admirable, but the fact that 'there has been no overall work on Roman military equipment and weapons published in France' since 1926 (8) may not be the best reason for creating an English-language version.1 Nevertheless, with several major Roman military sites on French soil (e.g., Alesia, Arlaines, Mirebeau), F. might be expected to have drawn upon material less familiar to the rest of us. Sadly, with the exception of the Chassenard items, surprisingly little use is made of French finds.

F. begins with a chapter on "Military thinking among the ancients" (11-18), which seems a little out of place in a book about Roman weapons (but which gives F. an opportunity to mention the Gauls). Next, he looks at the sources of evidence in a chapter confusingly entitled "The Roman soldier from earliest times" (19-36), presumably because it includes a brief look at the antiquarian background (largely from a French point of view). Chapter 3 ("The structure of the army", 37-61) also seems out of place; more detailed (and more accurate) discussions of army units, military careers, and so on, are available elsewhere. Similarly, chapter 11 ("The army and Roman society", 199-211) dwells on issues of doubtful relevance to military equipment studies -- alleged social differences between the common soldiers (201), for example, and the use of mythological scenes as propaganda (203).

The bulk of the book, however, comprises a standard run through the various classes of military equipment, in seven chapters arranged more or less chronologically -- "Republican arms and equipment" (63-86), "Protective equipment in the empire" (87-106), "Offensive weapons in the high empire" (107-132), "The cavalry" (133-156), "The artillery" (157-172), "Infantry equipment" (173-182), and "The late empire" (183-198). The subject matter of each is self-evident, apart from chapter 9, which is curiously entitled "Infantry equipment", although it covers only the military belt (here called the cingulum), footwear, and a selection of tools.

It is vital, first of all, to place Roman military equipment into context. Almost twenty years ago, in a paper investigating the reasons for military artefact deposition, Mike Bishop dismissed accidental loss as having played no more than a minor part. Returning to the same theme in 1993 -- coincidentally the publication date of F.'s French edition --, he (with Jon Coulston) noted that, far from representing the routine of everyday life, most finds of military equipment stemmed from exceptional circumstances: the burial of unwanted items prior to the army's withdrawal from a site, for example, or the consecration of items of particular personal value in fulfilment of a vow.2

In a section headed "The Sources of our Current Knowledge" (29-36), F. states that "finds are usually only of small objects", the implication being that if a Roman soldier dropped anything larger he would have picked it up again. F. gives his readers the impression that, when these larger pieces enter the archaeological record, they have come from equipment hoarded in the military fabricae -- "the most spectacular discoveries will be in association with these workshops" (29) -- and that only "on occasion, though not frequently" were artefacts deposited on the abandonment of a site. Of course, the few examples of hoards are intimately linked with site abandonment: the likes of Corbridge and Inchtuthil suggest tidying operations prior to orderly withdrawal, while the massive and valuable Künzing hoard hints at rapid flight following a military disaster. Any number of smaller deposits -- the scale armour from Carpow springs to mind -- illustrate the common procedure of burying discarded material prior to the army's departure.3

F. discounts graves as a source of evidence. Roman military grave goods are admittedly rare, partly because the warrior burial was not a Roman custom, and partly because the Roman soldier seems generally to have surrendered his weapons on retirement. However, more information on the Berry-Bouy inhumation would have been welcome, if only to support F.'s contention that "the presence of a sword, lance and shield are not enough to prove that he was a soldier" (32).

The two latter categories of deposition -- tidying up and burial -- coincide in the curious case of the soldier in the well at Velsen, who was probably dumped there during fort demolition ca. A.D. 30 (for who would contaminate the facilities of an operational fort in this way?). If the man was murdered, the motive was surely not theft, as he still wore his richly decorated dagger. There may have been a ritual element, as has been suggested for rubbish pits at Newstead, but F. does not discuss this.4

He does, however, draw attention to riverine finds as being ritual deposits rather than the casual losses of careless soldiers during river crossings. But the reader is never made aware of just how many Roman helmets, swords and daggers have entered the archaeological record by this route. Nor does F. explore the ramifications of a soldier "offering a helmet or a sword to a deity ... soliciting his protection in a coming campaign" (34); keeping the helmet or sword might, in the short term, have been a surer guarantee of safety, and the dedicator will perhaps have awaited proof of the god's assistance before parting with his valuable gift. In passing, we may note that the centurion Q. Catius Libo Nepos (CIL XIII 3592) dedicated a shield and spear -- scutum et lanceam -- not "a sword and a shield" (33).

F. seems to consider battlefield archaeology to be a viable source of military artefacts, extrapolating from Kalkriese, the site of the clades Variana. This latter has certainly produced one or two special pieces -- the iron face mask, for example, or the skeleton of a mule, whose iron bell had been muted with straw -- amongst a mass of arrow-, spear- and pilum-heads. But this is clearly an unusual case. By contrast, the cavalry graves at Krefeld-Gellep, plausibly connected to the skirmishing in A.D. 70, produced virtually no equipment, perhaps because of the looting which battlefields usually attract. F. plays down the artefacts from Alesia -- the only other battlefield example he offers -- on the pessimistic grounds that "we cannot say for certain that the weapons were lost during the siege" (31). Whether deposition occurred during the siege, or in clearing up afterwards, it surely makes little difference to the student of military equipment. Elsewhere, F. has alluded to weaponry deposited in the aftermath of sieges at Entremont, Le Baou-Roux, La Cloche and Saint-Blaise, but none of this appears here.5

The French roots of the book are most noticeable when F. discusses helmets. Indeed, his use of the Continental type-site classification may well confuse British and American readers used to Robinson's Gallic/Italic system. In fact, F.'s theoretical family tree of helmet types (94 fig. 112) is far less accessible than Robinson's scheme,6 partly because F. neither explains the reasons for the various categories ("Hagenau", "Weisenau", and so on) nor illustrates them to show the (alleged) different strands in helmet evolution.

This difficulty serves to highlight the fact that Anglophone scholars of Roman military equipment already have a rich literature of their own to draw upon. So, how does the book shape up as the "handy reference work" (8) which F. intended?

Unfortunately, as a reference book, there are a number of shortcomings, which can presumably be laid at the publisher's door. First, the standard of copy-editing is poor. The French forms of placenames should have been changed for the English edition: Alésia (8, 66, 68, 78, 79, 82, 129, 139, 159) is easily deciphered, but readers may be foxed by Myles (10), Platées (13), Telamone (13, 52), Fayoûm (64), Numance (66, 82), and Slovaquie (72). And a good editor should have corrected oddities like "Maximinus of Thrace" (22) for the emperor Maximinus Thrax, and "legionnaire" (10) for legionary, along with a dozen or so typesetting errors (e.g., "chair" for chain, 35; "appled" for applied, 41).

Second, the illustrations. Their often indiscriminate insertion and the almost total absence of in-text references to them diminish the book's usefulness; even a list of text figures would have gone some way to rectifying this fault. Then there is the tendency to omit illustrations of items specifically discussed in the text; for example, the "chain" mail from Ciumesti (74), the military belts from Vindonissa (176), and the half dozen tombstones of cavalrymen listed on p. 75. Even when the item is illustrated, the lack of cross-referencing can leave the reader oblivious: for example, the belt-plate >from Chassenard (mentioned on 176) is actually illustrated elsewhere (32 fig. 20).

Third, the system of referencing. Twelve separate chapter-based bibliographies make the checking of references tedious -- it is common for a particular work to appear only in a different chapter's bibliography, or for the same work to appear in two bibliographies, sometimes even in three --, and many of the works mentioned in the text are omitted (e.g., Brescak 1989 on p.31; Filtzinger 1975 on p.50). The reader has no chance of chasing up the more casual references which are scattered throughout (e.g., Brenner, Bonis, Schönberger, and Van Doorselaer, all cited on p. 31 without bibliographic details), and, in the absence of footnotes, the authority for some of F.'s statements is not always clear.

These faults may be classified as irritations. However, the absence of an index is a major flaw. This is regrettable in a book which presents a specifically French slant on a subject which is dominated by German and British scholars, and many gems will remain hidden in its unindexed pages.


1.   It is not clear whether the text has been revised, but one or two works published between 1993 and 2001 are noted in the bibliography section.
2.   M.C. Bishop, "The Distribution of Military Equipment within Roman Forts of the First Century A.D.", in C. Unz (ed.), Studien zu den Militärgrenzen Roms III: Vorträge des 13. Internationaler Limeskongress Aalen 1983 (Stuttgart, 1986), 717-723; M.C. Bishop & J.C.N. Coulston, Roman Military Equipment (London, 1993), 33-37.
3.   Corbridge: L. Allason-Jones & M.C. Bishop, Excavations at Roman Corbridge: the Hoard (London, 1988). Inchtuthil: L.F. Pitts & J.K. St.Joseph, Inchtuthil. The Roman legionary fortress (London, 1985), 109-113. Künzing: H. Schönberger & F.R. Herrmann, "Das Römerkastell Künzing-Quintana", Jahresbericht der Bayerischen Bodendenkmalpflege 8-9 (1967/68), 57-61. Carpow: J.C.N. Coulston, "Scale armour", Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot. 129 (1999), 561-566.
4.   Velsen: J.-M.A.W. Morel & A.V.A.J. Bosman, "An early Roman burial in Velsen I", in C. van Driel-Murray (ed.), Roman Military Equipment: the Sources of Evidence (Oxford, 1989), 167-191. Newstead: S. Clarke & R. Jones, "The Newstead pits", in C. van Driel-Murray (ed.), Military Equipment in Context (= J. Roman Military Equipment Stud. 5, 1994), 109-124.
5.   Kalkriese: W. Schlüter, "The battle of the Teutoburg Forest: archaeological research at Kalkriese near Osnabrück", in J.D. Creighton & R.J.A. Wilson, Roman Germany. Studies in Cultural Interaction (Portsmouth RI, 1999), 125-159, summarising earlier work from the 1990s. Krefeld-Gellep: C. Reichmann, "Römisch-germanische Schlachtfelder bei Krefeld", Archäologie in Deutschland 4 (1994), 6-11. Alesia: V. Brouquier-Reddé, "L'équipement militaire d'Alésia d'après les nouvelles recherches", J. Roman Mil. Equip. Stud. 8 (1997), 277-288. Entremont, Le Baou-Roux, La Cloche, Saint-Blaise: M. Feugère, "L'équipement militaire d'époque républicaine en Gaule", J. Roman Mil. Equip. Stud. 5 (1994), 3-23.
6.   H. Russell Robinson, The Armour of Imperial Rome (London, 1975). A handsome graphic of Robinson's proposed typology appears in P. Connolly, Greece and Rome at War (London, 1981), 228.

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