Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.49

Raffaele D'Amato, Graham Sumner, Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier: From Marius to Commodus, 112 BC-AD 192.   London:  Frontline, 2009.  Pp. xiv, 290.  ISBN 9781848325128.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Josh Levithan, Kenyon College (

The first published and chronologically central of a projected three volumes, this is a large and generously illustrated bid for “definitive” status in the field of Roman military equipment studies. This bid seems unlikely to succeed, given the greater ease-of-use and archaeologically-grounded sobriety of M.C. Bishop and J.C.N. Coulston’s Roman Military Equipment (second edition: Oxbow, 2006). This book is, however, in many ways an impressive achievement, a testament to an enormous scholarly effort—and it is a significant contribution to the understanding of the Roman army. Yet the effort is almost more antiquarian than scholarly. D’Amato (responsible for the main text and many photographs; the introduction and the new paintings and drawings are by Sumner) brings to bear his considerable expertise in the physical and representational evidence for Roman arms and armor, and he has most assuredly done his homework, travelling to many far-flung monuments and museums in order to photograph less-well-known artifacts. But the book is more successful as a compendium than as a balanced advancing-of-our-knowledge- work.

The prolific illustration is both a major strength and a weakness of the book, but the text does not always do much to support the author’s assertion of a “radically different” interpretation of his subject, namely that the representational evidence on surviving monuments is realistic and accurate, and thus a better route to re-imagining the army than keeping largely to the archaeological remains. In the introduction, Sumner asserts that “the purpose of this work is to throw new light on the examination of the equipment, armour, and clothing of the Roman soldier.” In this D’Amato and Sumner are largely successful, but the light is indeed thrown about, rather than focused. D’Amato repeatedly declares his belief that the representational monuments are highly accurate, but he seems aware that this is a subjective commitment, and he repeatedly hedges his bets: monuments and gravestones were merely “linked” to “the rigid necessity of realism” (xiii); relief sculptures “could be considered” as “something like” sketches from life or “modern photographic reportage.” They could; but it is hard to fault those who prefer to base their understanding of Roman arms and armor on the surviving artifacts, however incomplete that picture remains. This new Arms and Armour is exhaustive in its coverage of armor and weapon types, and D’Amato adduces good literary evidence to supplement the physical. He does indeed have new evidence to present even on object-types that have drawn much attention in recent decades from both archaeologists and serious re-enactors. But the quirks of this book hamper both its effectiveness as a scholarly treatise and its usefulness as a reference work. Divided into only two chronological sections (around the year 30 BCE) and then subdivided by arm of service, the actual discussion of the categories of objects is fragmented—it is a poor compromise between diachronic explanation and item-by-item comprehensiveness. The three bits at the beginning of each of the two major sections—a paragraph-shaped list of sources, an “events timeline,” and a few columns on military organization—are far too condensed to be of much use. The page-by-page layout is also rather odd: running descriptions of objects are interspersed with monument-by-monument photographs that do not all that often correspond to the accompanying text. There is an enormous amount of material here, but it takes patience (and five or six cross-referencing fingers jammed into various parts of the book, including the endnotes), to bring all the evidence to bear. This is particularly true if one is interested in, for example, a sword type that might have seen use by both infantry and cavalry across several centuries.

Despite occasional awkwardness in the prose, the descriptive passages are generally clear, but the short introductory passages to the new object categories can be somewhat obscure. There are some curious assertions of personal preference, such as referring to “the Consular age” rather than “the Republic,” but a more problematic choice is that several interpretive stances are boldly asserted, but not closely argued. One example of this is the discussion of representational accuracy on pages 66-7, where D’Amato argues that the presence of Apollodorus of Damascus on Trajan’s Dacian campaigns means that the scenes on Trajan’s column were taken from life, and thus depict Roman equipment in a realistic manner. Yet he acknowledges that the consistent portrayal of legionaries and auxiliaries in different armor types was probably a matter of artistic preference, obscuring a less uniform reality. The careful uncertainty of other scholars of the column seems to be the better position.

When it comes to details, D’Amato’s arguments are generally either convincing or beyond this reviewer’s ability to assess—but on the big questions he is generally not persuasive. That “the concept of parade armour or helmets [sic] did not exist in the ancient world” (xiv) is, at best, debatable; but the idea that the usual description of certain decorated and masked helmets as parade or sporting equipment that was not used in actual combat “should definitely be rejected” (187) is untenable. The weakness of D’Amato’s argument at this point is glaring. There is an unsupported simple assertion (“it is absolutely contrary to the ideology of the ancient warrior”), a bit of circumstantial evidence (some so-called “sports helmets” have been found in graves together with battle equipment), and an appeal to the psychological impact of impressive looking weapons. This impact was certainly important (and has been much discussed in the last two decades), but it is very strange indeed that the quotation offered as evidence of this effect (from Josephus, Bellum Judaicum, V, 350ff) describes soldiers taking their impressive armor and equipment out of cases during a days-long lull in the fighting, and putting it on for the express purpose of a parade.

Both the quality and quantity of the illustration are worth a few words more. The kitchen sink approach to illustration can be overwhelming, but it will present even a dedicated aficionado of Roman arms and armor with new images. The paintings too are surprisingly effective. Rather than the loosely imagined scenes that are now common in books on the Roman military, these are useful restoration studies. Sumner has in effect painted “cover” versions of extant funerary monuments, in which the restoration of color and detail enhances the interest of the original carving. These paintings are tied directly to descriptive commentary on the facing page, usually accompanied by a photograph of the monument, that details literary and archaeological support for the painting. These facing pages, too, have footnotes (rather than endnotes), so that that source, the argument of reconstruction, and the image can be taken in without turning the page.

In contrast to the paintings, many pages are overcrowded with many small photographs of in situ reliefs. Given that conditions obviously limited the quality of many images, these pages can be very hard to read. Other photographs are unreasonably small: it’s hard to know what to do with three 2-by-2 3/4-inch photos of the same heavily-weathered, greave-bearing legs, or with the seventeen adjacent photographs of “metopae reliefs from Munatius Plancus’ mausoleum” (23). In an age when most of us are nearly as accustomed to reading on the internet as in a book, one has the odd sensation of wanting to “click” on printed “thumbnails” in the hopes of significantly enlarging them. But to no avail—the weather-blurred legs, shields, and scabbard fittings are all we get.

Other photographs, however, are more valuable, providing clear evidence that Roman army books have been complacently drawing on the same pool of images for too long. One pleasant surprise is the Arch of Carpentras (which seems to have attracted little scholarly attention in the last century, although it is discussed in C. Antonucci’s L’esercito di Cesare and, naturally, can be found on Wikipedia). One face of the arch depicts two figures posed beside an oddly-rendered trophy, exotic weapons at their feet. The use of this monument is a good example of the too-intense focus on detail which is common to this sub-field and perhaps a particular fault of this book. D’Amato carefully considers the evidence for the late Republican scabbard shape, and the facing page includes twelve tiny photos of the three scabbards shown on the relief. Since the relief is being presented as realistic representational evidence for Roman arms, it should be worth noting that the figures appear to be non-Roman captives, and that it might not immediately be clear why Roman-seeming swords should be hanging on the trophy between them. Can even a reader disinclined to appeal to the expertise of art historians treat these images as evidence without some consideration of context or techniques of representation?

D’Amato acknowledges his debt to M.C. Bishop, in particular, and engages him in a good deal of recondite debate about the details of certain objects (particularly the segmented armor of the imperial legionary). It is generally rather difficult for a non-specialist, even one knowledgeable about the army in general, to distinguish between minor quibbles, essential agreements, and truly vexed questions, but anyone concerned with the possible omission of lobate hinges from some specimens of Stillfried-type lorica segmentata will need to consult both books.

There are some improvements, too, on Bishop and Coulston: the representational evidence is much more complete (Bishop and Coulston make little use of it after an initial short chapter on the subject), and there is more detailed discussion of certain objects, in particular organic materials (leather and linen worn either as armor or underneath it). D’Amato collects a great deal of rare evidence on this little-discussed subject, but it is still a sketchy collection, and nearly every paragraph of the argument that such materials are more important than metal-based reconstructions acknowledge must lapse into the subjunctive. There is irony in the fact that his most extensive use of archaeological evidence involves metal weapons, to supplement the photographs of monuments from which the metal detailing that once represented spear points and other weapons have long since been removed.

In many respects the two publications are complementary, with D’Amato and Sumner relying more on the representational evidence and Bishop and Coulston on archaeology—but the reasons for preferring Bishop and Coulston are clear. First, it is not quite time for a pseudo-revisionist return to the sculpture-inspired, antiquarian way of envisioning the Roman army. Even if some of the monuments here had slipped from the radar of modern scholarship, and even if the increasingly dominant images of meticulously tricked-out re-enactors are derived from the physical remains of armor and weapons, the images from a few famous monuments still retain their fundamental influence on modern imaginings of the Roman soldier. Second, this is not really a simple choice between equally valid methods. The representational evidence will never be completely free of the question of “accurate” depiction by the ancient artists, while the archaeological survivals offer, in most cases, significantly more secure starting places for re-creation. Finally, Bishop and Coulston provide a balanced analysis of the artifacts that is more in keeping with the tenor of recent scholarship, and their book is better indexed and easier to use. At the very least, that one volume, available in paperback and a more secure choice as a reference (both in terms of representing the consensus of Roman military archaeologists and in not including full-color, full-page illustrations of severed-head-bearing cavalrymen) will remain a more realistic choice of Roman historians than this large volume and its two projected successors.

D’Amato is to be congratulated on the effort and expertise that went into this book, and he will earn the thanks of many dedicated students of the Roman army for bringing so much rare material to their attention. It seems likely that this reinfusion of certain monuments—and perhaps also of his faith in their representational reality—into the debate will stimulate further discussion, and if it does so, his book should be counted a scholarly success as well as an antiquarian achievement.

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