The weapons of a Roman legionary

History of ancient Rome and its army of legionaries

The soldier pulled up, exhausted and covered with dust, after a gruelling day-long march in which his unit had covered 30 miles (50 km) of north African desert. His feet ached inside his heavy leather sandals. He was not only fully armed but weighed down by his rations, his personal effects and a bundle of wooden stakes.

Using these, he and his fellow legionaries at once set about building the palisade which would serve to protect their camp for the night. It was 146 BC. The legion was marching on Carthage, the great Phoenician city in what is now Tunisia, and Rome's bitter enemy in the third and final Punic War.

Short-range weapons

The Roman heavey infantryman at the time of the Carthaginian wars had two basic weapons; the sword, the gladius, was only 20-22 inches (50-55 cm) in length. It had a sharp point, but blunt edges, and was designed for thrusting. The soldier wore it in a sheath slung from a baldric or strap over his shoulder.

There were two types of javelin, or pilum, one heavier than the other - and the soldier would usually carry one of each. He would throw the javelins as he closed with his enemy. And then draw his sword to continue the fight at close quarters.

The legionary's shield, or scutum, was 2 ft 6 in (75 cm) wide and 4 ft (120 cm) long. Designed to protect the whole of his body, it was made of two thickness of wood glued together and covered with canvas and calf skin. 

The legionary was taught to fight with his left leg and shield thrust forward, using the shield to try to push his opponent over. He also often wore a chain-mail shirt, which weighed around 30lb (15kg). This heavy load caused many soldiers to drown as they tried to escape after being trapped by the Carthaginian general Hannibal at Lake Trasimene in 217 BC, during the long battle with Carthage.

The legionary had short hair and was clean-shaven; he carried a sickle-shaped bronze razor in his kit. Shaving was a practice adopted from the Greeks, who had found that wearing a beard in battle could be dangerous. An enemy could grab it and hold the soldier captive at close quarters, where he could be stabbed repeatedly.

Heavy load

The legionary had to be fit to move around the battlefield wearing a chain-mail tunic and bronze or iron helmet, and carrying a long shield. He wore black and purple plumes on his helmet to hamke himself appear taller.