Exact replica of early Roman armour created
2 September 2022
An authentic set of ancient Roman armour, based on examples from Italy c. 400 BCE, has been recreated at the University of Auckland.
An ambitious project to recreate a set of Roman bronze armour (circa 400 BCE) at the University of Auckland is the result of larger questions about how war and weapons fit into Roman society.
Military historian Jeremy Armstrong, an associate professor of classics and ancient history in the Faculty of Arts, says that while we know military equipment was incredibly important, we don’t really know other important things about it, like how hard it was to get.
"Could you just go to the store and buy it? Was it custom made? How hard was it to make? And this is particularly true when it comes to ancient Italy.”
What we do know, he says, is that unlike modern armies, soldiers of this time had to acquire their own armour and weapons and arrive for a campaign fully equipped.
“Rome conquered most of its empire [which expanded across Asia, Africa and most of Europe over 500 years] using an army of soldiers who supplied their own equipment.”
And possessing weapons was integral to the status of citizenship and manhood in these early societies, he says.
“For much of antiquity, around the Mediterranean, having military equipment was part of being a citizen. Fighting, and having the equipment to fight, was central to being part of the group as a man.”
So many of our ideas about ancient armies are shaped by modern ones, says Dr Armstrong.
“We usually assume that ancient armies operated using a nice, clean system of ranks. However that’s more a product of early modern and modern militaries. Roman armies, at least during the Republic, were more closely related to the rest of society, and power was based more on status; it was less structured, ‘soft power’.
“With supplying your own equipment, it was a bit like the Met Gala, you wanted to show up in something distinctive and flashy that embodied who you were; a symbol of how you wanted to present yourself on the battlefield.”
Dr Armstrong says up to now, ancient examples of Roman armour have mostly been viewed as objects of art.
“They're absolutely beautiful, they're in museums and collections across the world, but that’s not the same thing as looking at them as a craftsperson trying to recreate them and work out what would be involved and how hard it would be.”
To this end, his team, which included Nic Harrison and Jono Grose from Redoubt Forge in Hamilton and Dr Joshua Emmitt and Tim Mackrell from the University of Auckland, travelled to Italy in 2019 and investigated two major collections; one in Rome at the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia and the other at the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum in southern Italy.
“We looked at close to 35 pieces of ancient bronze equipment and did a pXRF [portable X-ray fluorescence used for detecting the chemical composition of a material] as well as laser scanning and photogrammetry [the art of creating 3D images from photographs] to make models so we could study these things when we came back to New Zealand.”
He felt it was important to recreate ancient techniques and technology as accurately as possible.
“We wanted to use the actual alloys we know they were using; so many modern recreations use modern metals.”
The replica includes a helmet, cuirass (a piece of armour covering the upper body), a belt, and greaves – which protect the legs – along with two swords and several spears.
With supplying your own equipment, it was a bit like the Met Gala, you wanted to show up in something distinctive and flashy that embodied who you were; a symbol of how you wanted to present yourself on the battlefield.
The whole project has taken about four years, with the help of Redoubt Forge’s Nic Harrison, who is mostly known for his medieval replicas.
Dr Armstrong says there was a lot of trial and error and “breaking equipment and trying to fix it”.
“That was actually a huge question we had; whether you could do ‘spot’ repairs, and it turns out you can, more easily than we imagined.”
One of the things that surprised him was how thin the armour is.
“The bronze armour we studied, and which we’ve made, is often about a millimetre or less thick, and each individual piece would have weighed about two kgs, so spread across your body, it’s maybe ten kilos, actually quite light.”
He says ancient soldiers also had a reasonable chance of survival compared to modern warfare; in any given battle, on average, sources suggest around five percent were killed on the winning side and about 10 percent on the losing one.
Rome’s approach to expansion, emphasising integration and alliances, also benefited Roman military technology.
“Although the Roman system was often quite brutal and oppressive, the way it brought existing allied units into the army allowed change to happen quickly. That’s often how they improved, by saying, ‘Hey, you bring your troops and your equipment and we’ll just say that’s now Roman equipment.”
He says coincidentally around the same time Rome started expanding, there were major shifts in how equipment was made, which aligned with changes happening politically, socially and culturally across the Mediterranean.
And discovering this particular correlation is a world first for the University, and the next phase of the project.
“So we've been trying to figure out which came first; was it because there was an empire and suddenly they needed equipment to be made in a different way? Or was it the equipment that allowed the empire to happen in the first place?
“Recent scholarship in ancient history has recognised that war wasn’t something that happened ‘out there’ with a small group of men, but rather something that, for better or worse, was a central part of all ancient society, involving everybody in one way or another.”
The armour will be used for teaching purposes as well as being on display as part of the W.K.Lacey Antiquities Collection at the University of Auckland.
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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