Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 670, Verse 1

The genesis of this post is another one, a general discussion of a variety of topics over at Nancy Nall's place. One of the topics that came up was the uniform regulations of the Roman troops posted to Jerusalem circa 30-something A.D. Nancy - having watched some sort of television Bible series called A.D. The Bible Continues - observed that:
"...I never come away from these things unimpressed with the Roman soldiers. The ones in “A.D.,” etc. had breast plates with nipple rings on them. Yes, little rings dangling from the nipple part of the armor. I guess it’s so you can tie a rabbit’s foot there, or your keys. I know Rome was wealthy, but is it possible every Roman soldier had identical fighting gear? The production of all those leather minis and brush helmets must have been a logistical nightmare. I just figured out why the centurions wore those brush helmets. So their men could pick them out on the field of battle, right? Plan for retirement, should it ever come: Read up on that stuff."
...which given my magpie mind, my recent peculiar interest in religious incunabula, and my penchant for military history, got me thinking about the whole place of the "Roman soldiers" in the Bible stories, films, and television.

For one thing, I never really thought about it, but we just kinda assume "Oh, sure, Roman soldiers" in the Passion play. We know they'll be there, and, sure enough, there they are all in their little "Roman soldier" kit - red jumpers, hoop armor, beavertail helmet, shield-and-spear.

But their purpose isn't really to be soldiers, right? They're there to be plot devices, to be the Bad Guy's henchmen, to get our hero to his appointment with destiny.

For all that I've soldiered and been interested in soldering all my life I never really thought much about them; they're just...always there in the Bible stories, types rather than individuals, not really that much different from the freaking sheep in the freaking manger scene.

But this discussion made me actually stop and think. I was one of those spear-carrying "Roman soldier" extras and as such I can tell you; there was nothing generic to me about who I was and what I did, and those guys were soldiers just like me.

If you're the one with the sword you're not just a "Roman soldier". You're Private So-and-so of the First Contubernia, Second Centuria, Cohors I Something-or-other. Your unit, your assignment, your experience and background have a hell of a lot to do with how you look, how you act, and how you effect everyone and everything around you.

So I got to wondering; first, who would have been posted to Jerusalem that particular Passover, and, second, what would they have looked like? How would they have turned out to handle the crowds and take care of all that imperial business as it involved some troublemaking street preacher?

Here's how the makers of this Bible series (called A.D. The Bible Continues, by the way) think that they should have looked.

You'll note that its your basic Level 1 Hollywood-Roman; senior officers in the fancy breastplate (called a lorica musculata, by the way, and I don't see any nipple rings but maybe that's just me...) and the grunts in the bog-standard helmet, shield, spears, and the this-is-so-Roman hoop armor
(By the way, that sort of armor is typically called a lorica segmentata these days, but its worth noting that the term never appears in Latin documents of the period - if anything, that particular type of armor was probably just called a "lorica", although I'd pay money to know what the Roman GI's slang term for it was; the Latin equivalent of "full battle-rattle"..)
Think of every Bible epic you've ever seen from Ben Hur all the way to whatever the fuck the Veggie Tales lunacy did for Easter and that's what the "Roman soldiers" look like, right?

Okay. So. One thing we can discount right off; none of these guys would have had those movie-Roman cylindrical-rectangular shields like the guy on the left is carrying and the guys in the TV scene above are equipped with.

The rectangular scutum was a purely legionary piece of equipment, and so far as we know there were no legionary troops in the province of Judea that year. I poked around a bit and what I came up with from various Internet sources was that - given that Judea was pretty minor province and not one on or near a threatening frontier enemy like Sarmatia, Dacia, or the German tribes – the closest actual legions were in Syria. As far as I can tell the Roman infantry troops in Judea in the time of the events of this television series were not legionaries but auxilia.

The auxilia were not, as you might think, light troops or irregulars. They were armed and organized as the legions, and their primary distinction was that they were typically recruited from non-citizen volunteers; the legionary troops had to be Roman-Romans, citizens. By the 1st Century AD the auxiliaries were typically recruited either from Italians (who would have been Roman citizens by then, too, though) or non-citizen non-Latins from Roman provinces. Few would have been actual barbari, the wild men from outside the Empire

That's them above. Notice how much the guys look like legionaries? Only the round shield (clipeus) gives them away. Anyway, it appears that the Judea garrison was the equivalent of a brigade - three cohors, the equivalent of a modern infantry battalion - two in Jerusalem and the third in Caesarea, the Roman capital.

Among the units I read are known to have been posted to Judea are Cohors I Sebastenorum (supposedly recruited from Samaria, the hilly region of modern northeastern Israel - "good Samaritans", remember?), Cohors Prima Italica Civium Romanorum, Cohors Secunda Italica Civium Romanorum and Cohors Prima Augusta. The first two would have been originally non-Romans but Roman allies or vassals - what were called socii or "allies" - recruited from the Italian peninsula. After the Social Wars some of these units were given Roman citizenship, hence the coveted "civium Romanorum" designation. An ala (battalion) of cavalry was also reported to have been stationed in Judea, Ala I Sebastenorum that was also said to have been recruited in Samaria.

So...basically these guys weren’t ash-and-trash, but they also weren’t legion infantry. So they would have probably gotten older, non-spec equipment that the guys from Legio X Fretensis handed down to them, or procured their own from local contractors.

Because the 1st Century Roman Army was similar to the modern U.S. Army in that its equipment was produced by civilian contractors; not until the 3rd Century AD did actual government manufactories appear to supply the forces. The legion would have had a number of local armorers making their kit, and apparently repairing what they had – archaeological finds have included armor that showed signs of alterations or repairs made some time after the original construction – who were probably given some sort of pattern or guidance that showed what the “issue” arms and armor were supposed to look like. So there was SOME uniformity. But the armor finds typically show small differences related to the local guy making it. And armor in particular was expensive and hard to make, so it tended to be kept around and re-issued even after newer models were introduced.

In particular, you'll note that in the picture from the TV show that the Roman EMs are ALL shown wearing that hoop armor - which is another Hollywoodism. Archaeology and most historians I've read suggest that eastern Roman soldiers probably wore some version of scale or lamellar armor (lorica squamata) or the chainmail (lorica hamata) that the auxiliaries are wearing in the picture just above. Everybody in the The Bible Continues-version of the Roman Army is uniformed exactly alike, and alike in the hoop-armor way.

But how likely was that? Combining the local-manufacture issue with the Eastern-style-scale-armor likelihood and the armor-is-spendy-so-older-models-tend-to-hang-around-the-supply-room thing my guess is that in a typical Roman auxiliary squad in Jerusalem circa 30AD you’d probably have found a couple of guys with mail, another maybe one or two with the hoop-armor, and a bunch more with scale armor.

Similar? Yes? Identical, like modern troops? No.

But making your TV Romans look like that is hard on the prop person and not the Hollywood image of "Roman soldier", so instead we get the Hollywood version on the electronic teevee.
So we already know that the TV Romans are dressed as legionaries and not as the auxiliaries they should be, and they all look waayyyy more uniform than an actual Roman auxiliary outfit would have. What else might have looked different from the Hollywood version?

I should add that to make matters more difficult for us to figure this out our actual understanding of Roman dress and equipment is far from complete. A big part of the problem is that we have such little actual physical evidence of daily life in the Roman Army.

Statuary depictions were usually carved by sculptors who had only the local troopers to go by, if that (my understanding is that most military historians are of the opinion that many of the depictions on Trajan’s Column, for example, were done by Roman artisans who hadn’t seen many of the soldiers they depicted and guessed or inferred the uniforms and equipment from the ones that HAD, such as the guard units stationed in the capital that would have looked very little like frontline troopers).

The written documentation is often incomplete and sometimes contradictory. Because of the perishability of metal archaeological finds are typically sparse – the Kalkriese excavations I wrote about in the Teutoburg engagement back in 2008 have produced some tremendous revelations about legionary kit in the 1st Century AD simply because of the concentration and association of legionary metal artifacts.

So with what little physical evidence we have I'm left with trying to infer what might have been the “inherent military probability” of a detachment commander tasked with sending a couple of companies (centuria) on personal security detail with the local military governor. What would I have done, in his caligae?

Well, my guess is that, given the relative quiet of Jerusalem at the moment I’d have had the boys kitted out in their “Number 2″ or “Class B” uniform; not the fanciest parade outfits – that would have been too likely to get mussed tussling with unruly crowds or, worse, sold in the marketplace by Private Marcus whose thirst for wine, carelessness with issue equipment, and tendency to manage to exchange the latter for the former was notorious – but with their best field gear and sidearms only. I'd want them to look good, but not so fancy that if riot control was required that they'd be hampered by expensive and delicate parade geegaws that, if lost or damaged, would have to be replaced or repaired or worse - come out of my unit's fucking budget. The Hades with that for a game of soldiers.

The pila spear would be more of a nuisance than a benefit in an urban operation-other-than-war environment, so they’d likely get left in the barracks. Aid-to-the-civil-power-order, then: helmet without the fancy parade plumes (but officers with their sidewise helmet-brush, though, to look the smarter), lorica, clipeus and gladius-only would be my bet. So these guys fumbling with shield and spear? Not really.
I'll bet that at least one of the centuria would have been tasked as a reaction force in full combat kit – shield and pilum and all – somewhere close by in case real trouble started. Since what we know from the scriptural sources suggests that didn’t happen, however, my guess is that any sort of depiction of the Romans in the bible stories that shows them with shield-and-spear is pure Hollywood.

Does this really matter a lick? Of course not; the people who made this Bible-epic aren't telling history, they're telling a Bible story. Expecting them to fuss about accuracy is like expecting logic from an animated cartoon; pleasant when encountered but not really required.
Or, as a certain famous Bible-guy is supposed to have said: "Truth? Dude, like, WTF is that..?"


Brian said...

Excellent and detailed post as always. I was wondering how one would find out which, if any, legion would be quartered in Judea at that time, and there you answered it for us!

And good thinking on the likely kit they'd have carried on that day - are you sure you weren't a centurion in a former life?

Leon said...

Just a few comments as you're in my wheelhouse. The lorica segmentata was apparently never used in the east and only worn by the western legions for some reasons. The eastern legiones would all have been kitted out in lorica hamata (mail) or lorica squamata (scale).

The auxilia were 1st line infantry and sometimes used in place of legionairy forces. At Mons Graupius, the auxilia did the fighting and the legiones formed the second line. Their equipment was probably at the same level of quality as the legionary stuff - but then again mail doesn't really get 'outdated' as long as it's maintained. They would have been carrying hastae (spears) as distinct from the legionary pila (pilums) but carried the same gladius.

As for patrolling, yes they almost certainly left the armour and shield at home. For this type of public disturbance (which is what Jesus represented to the Roman authorities, they didn't care what the heck he was preaching except it was making everyone unsettled) they'd just need their fustis (cudgels) to beat any malcontents into submission.

Jeff Gill said...

Very instructive. Thanks for putting the effort into this for those of us who've not realized just how far off the reservation Hollywood has taken us in our visual imagery of Roman soldiers. Lion skins on everyone would be less implausible than those ubiquitous loricas and leather square-dance skirts.

FDChief said...

Brian: I was a decanus, or and optio at best. I get a sense that the Roman Army was "overpromoted" in the sense that the junior leaders were considered more like officers than sergeants, tho they seem to have done a fair amount of sergeant-like business...

Leon: I know that the official line is that the auxilia and the legiones were seperate-but-equal but I have my doubts; I'll bet the legionary troops tended to look at the auxiliaries much like guardsmen or paras or other elite troopers look at regular line dogs, and I suspect that the auxiliaries came behind the legions on the Roman logistical food chain. So just like the U.S. Army gives its new issue to the Regulars and the Regulars hand down their old issue to the Reserves and Guard - and the fact that every military unit tries to scrounge what- and whenever it can - I'll bet that the auxilia tended to get stuff that the legions cast off...

The reason I threw out the possibility that there might have been a guy or two in the segmentata is the presence of the two Italian cohorts. A long-service guy might have been serving with them when they were raised in Italy and taken his lorica with him to Judea...maybe. I tend to agree that most of the guys would have been in mail or scale, tho...

For riot duty there's nothing like a shield and a club - the modern riot order for soldiers hasn't changed - remember the picture of the British copper I posted here a couple of years ago with her riot shield and truncheon? Yep...

So if I'd been in charge of that detail I'd have turned the guys out with shield and armor (because a good suit of mail or scale helps with thrown rocks and cobbles and the occasional sicarii with a dagger) but I agree that a good club would have been the dandy.

The other thing would be that I assume that Roman Jerusalem had some sort of vigiles, too, so they'd have likely been involved...had they been there. Probably no way to tell one way or the other.

Leon said...

"I assume that Roman Jerusalem had some sort of vigiles"

That'd be logical yet Rome didn't get a formal system of police/fire wardens for some 700ish years ab urbe condita.

There's an Osprey series that covers the military clothing of Imperial Roman soldiers (not arma) which is really incredibly neat. One recreation depicts an auxiliary in Roman Judea in 'surveillance' dress with a hidden cudgel (that he's taking out to deliver some romanitas). So they seem to have adapted to deal with these perfidious Judeans and their wacky religions.

Dane900 said...

A cohort recruited in Samaria? Thankyou so much for digging up that tidbit, that's huge. You say you're mildly intrigued by religion, so may I ask, are you aware of the meaning behind the old, "When someone makes you go with him a mile, go with him two miles," line? It was a law that said a Roman soldier could press-gang a passing civilian into carrying his gear for him, for one Roman mile. In that context Cohors I Sebastenorum means a hell of a lot: that soldier who's forcing you to carry his stuff? He's not just the face of oppression who's defected to the evil empire, he's a Samaritan heretic as well. But hey, carry his junk two miles anyway.

Mind-blowing. Thanks so much for bringing it up.