Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Homogenisation of Military Equipment Under the Roman Republic

By Michael T. Burns
Digressus Supplement 1 (2003)

Sub-rectangular scuta. Note the curved, semi-c...
Sub-rectangular scuta. Note the curved, semi-cylindrical shape and the metal boss fitted in the middle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Introduction: Most studies of the Roman army introduce the legion as a fully developed and thoroughly Roman entity. Little attempt has been made to examine the technical and tactical developments that occurred in Italy before the third century BC, and the interaction between Rome and its Italic allies. Lawrence Keppie, in The Making of the Roman Army, passes over the allies with the brief summary that, ‘as far as can be determined, they were organised and equipped in more or less identical fashion to the Romans, with their own distinctive arms and tactics being gradually subsumed’. This is a typically Romano-centric view, and equates the subsuming of distinctive arms and tactics with the Romanisation of the allies. To do so ignores a wealth of archaeological and representational evidence from the formative period of the fourth century BC, which shows that many items of equipment and tactical innovations, which are commonly associated with the ‘Roman’ legion, were already in use by the various Italic peoples long before Roman hegemony.

It is not the purpose of this paper to make definitive statements regarding the development of military equipment during the Republic; the evidence available to us, both literary and archaeological, is insufficient for this purpose. Rather, what I hope to offer is a new perspective on a very neglected and misunderstood aspect of the Roman army, by examining why regional variations in Italic military equipment came to be replaced by a largely homogeneous panoply and method of fighting by the middle of the third century BC. The usual answer to this question is based almost entirely on the assumption that after the Romans defeated various Italic peoples, the latter subsequently adopted Roman arms and armour. Such a conception of the Romanisation of the Italic allies’ military equipment presumes that this is a one-way process. It ignores and glosses over a complex and fascinating period of military evolution, development, and interaction in Italy. The results of this process would later provide Rome with the foundations of a military system that few ancient powers could resist.