Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.26

I.P. Stephenson, Roman Cavalry Equipment.   Stroud/Charleston, SC:  Tempus Publishing, 2003.  Pp. 127; figs. 104, colour pls. 18.  ISBN 0-7524-1421-6.  £17.99/$29.99.  

Reviewed by Duncan B. Campbell, Glasgow (

Nowadays there are many books one may consult on the subject of Roman military equipment. First, there is the grandaddy of them all, Robinson's Armour of Imperial Rome, now long out of print but superseded, indeed surpassed as a comprehensive and reliable guide, by Bishop & Coulston's Roman Military Equipment.1 Of course, both of these touch on the subject of cavalry equipment, but for specialist treatment one thinks primarily of the reconstruction work of Peter Connolly and Marcus Junkelmann.2 So, can Stephenson and Dixon (hereafter, S & D) offer anything new?

S & D divide their book into eleven chapters. After a short introduction on the traditional flamboyance of cavalry (ch.1, 9-10), they briefly draw attention to Roman equipment as an indicator of troop identity, as an amalgam of influences from beyond the empire, and as a source of terror for the enemy (ch.2, 11-15). They then consider the different items comprising the cavalryman's armour (helmets, ch.3, 17-31; shields, ch.4, 33-42; body armour, ch.5, 43-53; other armour, ch.6, 55-63) and weapons (thrusting weapons, ch.7, 65-73; bladed weapons, ch.8, 75-96; missile weapons, ch.9, 97-106), before finishing with horse equipment (the saddle, ch.10, 107-110; horse armour, ch.11, 111-117).

Unfortunately, S & D never really come to grips with what actually constituted cavalry equipment, and the reader would have benefited from a brief comparison with contemporary infantry equipment. In fact, we are left with the distinct impression that, if the cavalryman were separated from his horse, he could pass very well for an infantryman. He carried the same oval (or occasionally hexagonal) shield, he wore the same mail or scale shirt, he used the same spear, and wore the same dagger; in the later period, the infantry even adopted the same long sword. (It is telling, in this regard, that much of the material here has already appeared in a book about infantry equipment by one of the authors.)

The one area of distinction was the helmet. S & D define cavalry helmets as those in which "the cheek-pieces completely covered the wearer's ears" (17), but they do not explain the logic behind this. A second peculiarity of the cavalry helmet, the deep neckguard, is mentioned only in passing (19), and again S & D pass no comment. However, these are the very features that were required in the hurly-burly of the cavalry mêlée, in which a man may suddenly be attacked from all sides. A different indicator of cavalry use is surely the high degree of decoration preserved on many of these helmets, but S & D's purely descriptive approach has prevented them from fully exploring this. Unlike their infantry cousins, the well-paid cavalrymen could afford to decorate their cheekpieces and sheath their iron helmet bowls with copper alloy embossed to resemble hair. For example, one of the three helmets found at Heddernheim represents a splendidly ostentatious example of cavalry showmanship.3 (The ambiguity surrounding cavalry equipment seems to extend even to the apparently clear-cut case of the helmet, for S. has elsewhere cited the plain iron Heddernheim helmet as a late infantry piece, although it has all the hallmarks of cavalry use.)

It is now customary, in discussions of Roman armour, to mention the padded undergarment, or thoracomachus, which appears in the late De Rebus Bellicis text. However, it is worth remembering that its earlier usage was simply a suggestion, albeit a plausible one, by Mike Bishop, who equated it with the subarmalis of the Severan period.4 His original observation, that without padding "the repeated up and down motion of the horse causes [the cavalryman's] mail cuirass to thump down on the shoulders", should be borne in mind in this particular context.

S & D include a brief discussion of the arm defences known as manicae, along with greaves and the throat-protector later known as the "gorget". However, although their use by legionaries can be demonstrated, their specific relevance to Roman cavalry remains unproven. (It is noteworthy that the same items, indeed virtually the same discussion, appears in S.'s earlier book on Roman Infantry Equipment.) Robinson famously envisioned the panoply of the third century cataphractus (heavily armed cavalryman) as a patchwork of individual items: scale shirt, segmental guards for arms and thighs, and knee-length greaves. S & D present something similar in their reconstruction of the clibanarius (plates 11 and 14), but the result in no way resembles the well-known Dura Europos graffito, which they identify as a "cataphractus / clibanarius" (112 fig. 101). In reality, it is quite likely that the cataphract simply wore the knee-length, long-sleeved, hooded mail shirt, known from the Dura Europos frescoes.

If there is ambiguity in the cavalryman's panoply, there can be no doubt about horse tack, which is indisputably equestrian. These are the straps, fittings and pendants which formed the bridle, secured the saddle, and generally caparisoned the animal. Evidently the cavalryman, with his richly embossed helmet and tinned bronze armour, required his mount to be similarly eye-catching. Unfortunately, S & D exclude this rich assemblage of items, a decision which is all the more curious, as horse tack provides the subject matter for one text figure (106 fig. 92) and three out of eleven reconstruction paintings (plates 9, 13, 16). (Interested readers will find the subject fully discussed by Bishop, whose reconstructions appear to be the source for two of S & D's paintings.5)

The target readership is not indicated, but the decision (of the publisher?) to omit any kind of referencing suggests that the book is aimed at the general reader. And although S & D certainly concentrate on "unequivocally military items such as helmets, swords etc." (10), their method results in nine self-contained discussions (chs. 3-11) with no real attempt to integrate them into the whole. Consequently, the non-specialist may find it difficult to conjure up "the image of the cavalryman" (10) from any one period. To be sure, the inclusion of colour reconstructions will be of some assistance, depicting an Antonine horse archer (plate 8), a Flavian trooper (plate 9), a third-century clibanarius (plates 11 & 14), and three early Byzantine cavalrymen (plates 15, 17 & 18); and the book fairly teems with D.'s pen-and-ink illustrations. But unfortunately, S & D have been poorly served by their proof readers; I noted errors on virtually every page, beginning with the title page (3) where S's name is misspelt. Nevertheless, any readers who soldier on will be rewarded by a pretty comprehensive summary of the Roman cavalryman's equipment.


1.   H. Russell Robinson, The Armour of Imperial Rome (London, 1975). M.C. Bishop & J.C.N. Coulston, Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the fall of Rome (London, 1993).
2.   P. Connolly, Tiberius Claudius Maximus. The Cavalryman (Oxford, 1988). M. Junkelmann, Die Reiter Roms (3 vols. Mainz, 1990/1991/1992).
3.   Robinson, op. cit. (note 1), 100-101 figs. 273-276. Also, P. Connolly, Greece and Rome at War (London, 1981), 235 fig. 7. S & D do not illustrate this helmet, but include the plain iron one (20 fig. 5) and the so-called "sports" one (23 fig. 8) from the same site.
4.   M.C. Bishop, "Aketon, Thoracomachus, and Lorica Segmentata", in Exercitus: the Bulletin of the Ermine Street Guard vol. 3 no. 1 (1995), 1-3.
5.   M.C. Bishop, "Cavalry equipment of the Roman army in the first century AD", in J.C. Coulston (ed.), Military Equipment and the Identity of Roman Soldiers (Oxford, 1988), 67-195.

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