Roman Army? or Roman Armies?
Ewan again (again), this time looking at the popular presentation of the Roman Army as a uniform monoculture…
What do you visualize when you think of the Roman Imperial army? Shining plated legionaries in lorica segmentata and red tunica marching rank and file? Perhaps in a fashion that wouldn’t seem out of place in a propaganda clip from Cold War USSR or the modern DPRK? This is indeed the image presented in popular video games like Rome Total War (RTW) and Hollywood films like Gladiator: a mass of uniformed warriors, depicted in a very different space from their Roman civilian counterparts. Indeed, in games like RTW, the soldier is never seen in a civilian context. They are ‘forever soldiers’, with no life beyond preparation for, recovery from, and entering into the field of battle.
But scholarship over the last few decades has challenged this perception, presenting the Roman army as a mutli-layered and diverse entity. Indeed, as Simon James and Johnathon Coulston note, the Romans had no word for ‘the army’, just ‘armies’ (exercitus). Perhaps we should see the ‘Roman Army’ as more of a collection of armies with a strong sense of communal identity, not some monolithic fighting machine? (James 2011)
For instance, most uniform military institutions have, well… a uniform. We have no evidence to suggest there was a sanctioned Roman ‘uniform’ in the modern military sense. Trajan’s column (see below) is often referred to as evidence for a uniform because it presents a similar image to that which is presented in Hollywood and RTW. However, we must remember that — much like these modern mediums of representation — the Column is not necessarily a reflection of reality, but rather a representation limited by the constraints of the medium and its function (propaganda?).
Indeed, many factors which forced modern 17th century armies to adopt uniforms — such as visually similar enemy forces and battlefields clouded by gunpowder smoke — were not present in the Roman Empire. Instead, it is more likely that any degree of uniformity “arose from practical ergonomics, localised small-scale production, and copying of pieces as troops moved around the empire” (Coulston 2004). Research into army production chains could shed light on these processes (the overly keen Roman supply fanatic can find such research on Housesteads and Hadrian’s Wall).
Now, this is not to say that there was no uniformity in terms of appearance, just no uniform. The archaeological record reveals that certain items of dress were indeed very popular amongst servicemen and their wider communities in the Roman world. These were usually small items of dress related to, or drawing attention towards, typical features of army dress, such as belts (baltei) and military cloaks. For example, the Aucissa fibula (a style of brooch clasping military cloaks), can be found across the Empire. These predominantly 1st century CE brooches identified a Roman soldier as a member of the army and its related communities (Allison 2013), be they in Dalmatia or Britannia (where the example below is from).
However, these were not exactly the same specimens across the Empire. There were local variations, with inscriptions on the brooches sometimes featuring names of local producers for example. Here, we see a feature of their larger Roman army culture being adapted to local and regional contexts.
But what was the point of these distinguishing pieces if not to be part of an ‘official’ ‘Roman’ uniform? Well, to distinguish the members of the Roman army community from civilians and (sometimes) soldiers from non-combatants, because, despite how they are presented in media (and sometimes scholarship), the soldiers of Rome were not always cut off from civilian.
While some have claimed otherwise, it has recently been argued that women and other non-combatants were present in spaces previously thought to be solely the realm of ‘military men’, namely army camps. For instance, by mapping the distribution of artefacts typically associated with females, Penelope Allison convincingly demonstrated that women and other non-combatants were present in 1st-2nd century CE Roman camps in Germany. Similar cases can be seen elsewhere (but not everywhere), like at Vindolanda in the UK. This does not mean that all camps and spaces were always home to non-combatants, but one should no longer assume there were none by default.
Now one must ask why all of this matters? What are the effects of this ‘uniform’, masculine and overly militarised (in the modern sense) representation in pop culture?
One adverse effect, when coupled with the overexaggerated ‘whiteness’ of Romans, is that it can feed into white supremacist tropes sometimes found in video games: as observed by one fan of Rome Total War II in relation to its depictions of Roman legionaries. Furthermore, the removal of women and non-combatants from army spaces (e.g. camps) may misrepresent the ‘reality’ in the Roman world and exaggerate the ‘masculine’ nature of these spaces. This is, of course, not as cut and dry (or nefarious) as it may seem. Game and film developers are often working on tight timeframes and resources and there are a myriad of factors that affect their products.
I am not saying that we can not enjoy these games and movies. We just have to consume these media critically — enjoying it as we do so!
Dungworth. 2001. Metal Working Evidence from Housesteads Roman Fort, Northumberland.