Late Roman weapon & arms changes?

Dec 2009
969
UK
I wanted to get the opinion of posters as I know there are some Roman enthusiasts here.

What were the causes of the change in arms and armour for the Romans during the 3rd Century which eventually developed into the Infantry dressing and arming themselves like a Roman Cavalryman.

Spatha > Gladius

Oval Shield > Scutum

Mail or Scale > Segmentata

Hasta

Was this down to cost? training? they were basically armed not much different to the barbarians they fought.

I've read various reasons attributed such as the old Roman Legion was designed as a conquering force and the later Roman army was developed as more of a regional guard as in the Limitanei.

You could say the Hasta was re-adopted due to an increase in Cavalry threat etc but it seems like a big divergence and to be honest dilution of the once over powering aggressive legions to a quite new emphasis of fighting.

PS - I'd also like your opinion on who you think would win in a battle between the later Roman's and the new equipment vs the Classical model Legionaries.

This is more to get a feel of their particular weaponry vs each other because the Classical Legions were armed to deal with warriors wielding weapons exactly like the ones the Later Romans adopted hence my curiosity.
 

aggienation

Ad Honorem
Jul 2016
9,745
USA
There is no known answer, only various opinions and speculation.

The best I heard was that the Roman Army was adopting more equipment, organization, tactics of those who served in it, who did not share a historic culture of warfare that at the time those Late Romans referred themselves as the Ancients. They didn't fight as previous Romans did because many centuries had passed and things had changed, including views on warfare. In addition, there was a greater emphasis on historical Greek combat methods, as the Late Roman Empire was heavily influenced by the Greek/Hellenic peoples.

The Roman system from yore, the time of the pila/scuta/gladii, was when Roman armies were very infantry centric. They were not in later years, they were more cavalry centric, or more so, combined arms centric, as every piece of their armies seemed to be working in concert with one another. So a change of equipment was probably warranted for such a change in tactics. Where spears and larger shields better when infantry were conceived as anvils for hammer and anvil tactics? Maybe.

Overall, a spear is quite a versatile weapon. It has more range than a short sword, and is quite effective against other infantry or against horses. They were predominately carried throughout the Republic by various types of Roman soldiers (Triarii, cavalry), and by many of the socii, foederati, auxiliaries. While the pilum was a great weapon too against man or horse, it was a very specific weapon, where the spear was an all purpose one. And a longer sword is actually better than a short sword if one does not fight in the manner of the Roman Republic and Principate, who favored bad breath range and used pila volleys to try to break up enemy phalanx before attacking them with blood crazed infantry carrying swords with 25" blades, that progressively got shorter and shorter as the years went by, as their tactics and daily training became more standardized.

But spear and sword never did equal victory for any Roman. Discipline, organization, logistics, and strategems were usually what decided the winner and losers.
 
Dec 2009
969
UK
There is no known answer, only various opinions and speculation.

The best I heard was that the Roman Army was adopting more equipment, organization, tactics of those who served in it, who did not share a historic culture of warfare that at the time those Late Romans referred themselves as the Ancients. They didn't fight as previous Romans did because many centuries had passed and things had changed, including views on warfare. In addition, there was a greater emphasis on historical Greek combat methods, as the Late Roman Empire was heavily influenced by the Greek/Hellenic peoples.

The Roman system from yore, the time of the pila/scuta/gladii, was when Roman armies were very infantry centric. They were not in later years, they were more cavalry centric, or more so, combined arms centric, as every piece of their armies seemed to be working in concert with one another. So a change of equipment was probably warranted for such a change in tactics. Where spears and larger shields better when infantry were conceived as anvils for hammer and anvil tactics? Maybe.

Overall, a spear is quite a versatile weapon. It has more range than a short sword, and is quite effective against other infantry or against horses. They were predominately carried throughout the Republic by various types of Roman soldiers (Triarii, cavalry), and by many of the socii, foederati, auxiliaries. While the pilum was a great weapon too against man or horse, it was a very specific weapon, where the spear was an all purpose one. And a longer sword is actually better than a short sword if one does not fight in the manner of the Roman Republic and Principate, who favored bad breath range and used pila volleys to try to break up enemy phalanx before attacking them with blood crazed infantry carrying swords with 25" blades, that progressively got shorter and shorter as the years went by, as their tactics and daily training became more standardized.

But spear and sword never did equal victory for any Roman. Discipline, organization, logistics, and strategems were usually what decided the winner and losers.
It just seems to me that the Roman army in making those adaptions for the variety of reasons described, easier to recruit foderati (who already used those weapons), better cavalry repulsion, adopting a Greek style tactic, expense, Garrison style individual combat rather than blocks of close range infantry, whatever the reason or combination of reasons were.

It just seems to be that the Romans lost their tactical edge, the reason they adopted the Gladius in the first place and got rid of the Hasta was to standardize marching forward, using the Scutum to by pass lengthy weapons such as a spear and run over their enemies, getting in close and delivering a stab into the mid section within the effective range of longer swords and weapons.

The Classical Romans were very logical and matter of fact, if the longer Spatha and Hasta were more effective then surely they would of used / kept them.

I don't like to second guess because who are we to judge those who were actually doing it, but then in turn if the Empire was in decline, struggling for money and man power and overall discipline wasn't what it used to be en masse then I think critic is warranted.

How about the question of Classical Legion vs Diocletian Legion post the weapon changes?

I guess I just trust the expertise of Caesars era, they were pioneering and still had the bruises from the Carthage, Dacian, Parthian and Gallic wars and overcame them all eventually, apart from improvements in cavalry I just wonder what was the advantage of the changes.

I begin to feel looking at the reasons as a whole, that as corruption and apathy grew the Romans just couldn't keep up the esprit decor of the old legions, they needed to man and police an Empire and I think that need came before the urgency of making an unbeatable conquering force?
 

aggienation

Ad Honorem
Jul 2016
9,745
USA
The Romans shifted to a primarily garrison doctrine in the very early Principate when Augustus took over and solidified the border. There was some expansion done after, but that was really nothing compared to that done in the Middle to Late Republic, when Rome grew from a small regional power in central Italy, to controlling the entire Mediterranean basin.

The Roman gladius as a primary weapon for close range fighting isn't the end all, be all. Its only effective when used in conjunction with their long range weapon, the pila. Throwing their polearms meant they needed to rely on swords, and as time went on, the swords got shorter and shorter, as early Gladius Hispaniensis had 25-27" blades, sometimes longer, the Mainz was typically 20-22", and the Pompeii style were 18-20". The latter really only works well in very close range combat, which is not always recommended as distance is sometimes necessary to survive, or prosper. There is a legit reason why most cultures in human history did not favor a very short infantry sword primarily used for thrusting, as they are not nearly as versatile as longer bladed sword, with more reach, more heft and balance for a cut and thrust both.

The Roman system of organization, equipment, and tactics for close range infantry combat were cultural. They grew out from Rome itself and warring with other Italic peoples, plus outsiders like the Gauls and Iberians in the 5th-2nd Cent BC before they seemed to have largely standardized for the next couple centuries. I think what was more odd was not that they changed during the Late Republic (or why), but more why they didn't change previously. The why was probably cultural.

The Romans favored the pila/scuta/gladii miles gregarius for the same reason they favored short haircuts and togas. Because it was their culture. As the identity and culture of the Roman people changed, with less emphasis on traditional Roman/Italian customs, they adopted others, primarily Gallic, Hellenic, Germanic. All of whom favored spears in the first place. All of whom favored shield wall phalanxes over the looser formations of the Italians, where individual swordsmen were given the space to move around while fighting, like a boxer moving around. Having the freedom of movement to side step left or right, advance or retreat independently of their rank and file. To have the luxury of throwing a pilum at an enemy only a few feet away, attacking with a scutum strike to be followed by a sword combination cut or thrust, etc.
 
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Dec 2009
969
UK
.......... in an Infantry oriented era as was the Classical (in the West) its because the Gladius is more effective in close, simple, deliberate and deadly, its the same reason that once locked in a phalanx vs phalanx the Spartans favored the even shorter Xiphos to which they had a deliberate even shorter version than their Greek neighbors.

The Gladius on its own is a horrendous weapon but coupled with the Scutum becomes a different proposition altogether.
On its own, hence the difference between the mentality of a Germanic warrior where you learn to fight as an individual rather than in a phalanx esque cohesive unit.

As you well know the wall of shields of the Roman Legion, marching toward you in unison with purpose was almost akin to the feeling you would of got from Swiss Pike march .......... helpless.

Against a combination of Scutum and Gladius you have one or so strikes before he's inside your range and stabbing you unless you back up, backing up in mass is basically a retreat, if you don't back up you get gutted.
There's also not too much reliance on parrying blade to blade etc, the Scutum's defense means you can get in close quite protected backed up by Roman armour.
This was the edge of the Roman Legion over other warriors.

Lack of range is only really a concern if your using the blade on its own, like the Greek theory on the Aspis, the shield was possibly even more important than the weapon as was the Scutum to the Romans.

the defensive prowess and adaptability of the Scutum's defense (testudo, arrows, blades, spears) probably got the Romans out of more trouble than any other kit they had.
 

aggienation

Ad Honorem
Jul 2016
9,745
USA
.......... in an Infantry oriented era as was the Classical (in the West) its because the Gladius is more effective in close, simple, deliberate and deadly, its the same reason that once locked in a phalanx vs phalanx the Spartans favored the even shorter Xiphos to which they had a deliberate even shorter version than their Greek neighbors.
The Spartans didn't favor their xyphos in short range combat until their spears broke. And there is only one line of evidence that suggests the Spartans even favored a short sword.

The Gladius on its own is a horrendous weapon but coupled with the Scutum becomes a different proposition altogether.
On its own, hence the difference between the mentality of a Germanic warrior where you learn to fight as an individual rather than in a phalanx esque cohesive unit.
The Roman infantry of the Republic and Principate did not intentionally fight in tight shield walls unless dealing with cavalry or enemy loosing missle weapons. They fought in more open formations allowing Roman swordsmen to use footwork to maneuver their bodies, shields, and swords. Caesar, in his Commentaries, even had to bully his way into a century in combat to order them to open their maniple, to open ranks, to allow them to use their swords and shields properly. Polybius states the Roman infantry rank had about 3 feet of space between each soldier.

Meanwhile, during the Cimbric War, Germanic warriors fought in such tight shield walls that Plutarch foolishly stated they chained themselves together. When Caesar fought the Helvetti a couple generations later, they formed up in such a tight shield wall that he related in his Commentary that a single pilum pierced multiple shields.

The idea that Romans fought in a tight, deliberate phalanx and their Gallic or Germanic enemy in a loose and disorganized mass is trope, one repeated commonly but not founded on any actual historical evidence. Especially the Germans, who seemed to favor shield walls for over a thousand years.

Against a combination of Scutum and Gladius you have one or so strikes before he's inside your range and stabbing you unless you back up, backing up in mass is basically a retreat, if you don't back up you get gutted.
There's also not too much reliance on parrying blade to blade etc, the Scutum's defense means you can get in close quite protected backed up by Roman armour.
This was the edge of the Roman Legion over other warriors.
All enemy infantry that Romans faced also used spears. Many of the enemy didn't have full combat, but their warrior elite did, their officers did (in the case of Greek/Hellenic), and they commonly fought in the front ranks. The Romans didn't just stab into the enemy's exposed abdomen while blocking an attack, like the trope goes. The enemy had the ability to fight back, and defend themselves, nearly as well as the Romans. Sometimes better.

Lack of range is only really a concern if your using the blade on its own, like the Greek theory on the Aspis, the shield was possibly even more important than the weapon as was the Scutum to the Romans.
The Aspis alone was nothing. Greek hoplites primarily fought with spears and their swords or daggers were seen as secondary weapons to use if their spears were broken, lost, or the enemy was just too close for that individual soldier to use it, or for situations like chasing a routed enemy, or fighting in sieges (climbing ladders or defending ramparts), when sometimes the one handed spear wasn't the best weapon to use.

The defensive prowess and adaptability of the Scutum's defense (testudo, arrows, blades, spears) probably got the Romans out of more trouble than any other kit they had.
The only thing the Roman scutum could do better than their enemies' (who often used a similar thureos shield design) was that its laminated construction, taller height, and curved profile made it slightly better at covering their body head to shin in their fighting stance, while being strong enough to be repeatedly pierced by missiles or cut into by swords and still be serviceable. But there was nothing truly special about it.

This is what the Roman used. This is what his enemy used.

As you well know the wall of shields of the Roman Legion, marching toward you in unison with purpose was almost akin to the feeling you would of got from Swiss Pike march .......... helpless.
This is a trope. There is no indication the Romans even marched in step. Some of their enemies did, the Spartans did, the Hellenic sarissa phalanx did, but there is no proof at all the Romans did, only speculation by some who don't feel its possible to march without marching in perfect lock step like a 18th Century Prussian. Which is actually not the case. Marching in step is ONLY needed when the tactics require precision spacing, which Roman tactics absolutely did not. The only time marching in step would be helpful would be while maneuvering in Tortoise, but that wouldn't be a large scale cadence, just one done by those involved where they could do a basic 1,2 cadence to try not to step on one another in very tight formation. But they didn't fight in that formation, it was just used for movement.
 
Dec 2009
969
UK
I know the Romans had 3 ft of space, I didn't say they fought in a phalanx, I said the enemy would see a wall of shields advancing in cohesion, i.e an organised march of the Roman line, not to mistake for an actual Shield wall as in the tactic of locking shields together as the Greeks or Saxons did.

The Spartans definitely used the Xiphos, all Greeks did, that and the Kopis and of course it was a secondary weapon, your not going to have a phalanx without spears as the primary weapon, but the Spartans were said to have used a particularly short variety of Xiphos, smaller than what others have used as it was better for stabbing over the pressed together shields.

My point of that is that if two of the best Warriors in their regions favored shorter blades then you need to defer to their expertise, again, the Classical Legions and Spartans wouldn't use shorter blades if it wasn't an advantage and again, the combination use of their shields is parallel to its effectiveness.

I own a Gladius, I know sword vs sword its a massive disadvantage, coupled with a shield and chest to chest your toast.
 

aggienation

Ad Honorem
Jul 2016
9,745
USA
I know the Romans had 3 ft of space, I didn't say they fought in a phalanx, I said the enemy would see a wall of shields advancing in cohesion, i.e an organised march of the Roman line, not to mistake for an actual Shield wall as in the tactic of locking shields together as the Greeks or Saxons did.
What does an organized march mean? They weren't in step. Their maniples were spaced with gaps between so they were not forced to move in perfect harmony with one another. They were often not fighting in large manicured fields, but in battlesites on the side of mountains, in the middle or edge of forests, across rivers and streams, etc.

The Spartans definitely used the Xiphos, all Greeks did, that and the Kopis and of course it was a secondary weapon, your not going to have a phalanx without spears as the primary weapon, but the Spartans were said to have used a particularly short variety of Xiphos, smaller than what others have used as it was better for stabbing over the pressed together shields.
One source says the Spartans used a smaller than average xiphos. No other. And the spear was also used for stabbing over an enemy's shield, that was the whole point of using an overhanded grip.

My point of that is that if two of the best Warriors in their regions favored shorter blades then you need to defer to their expertise, again, the Classical Legions and Spartans wouldn't use shorter blades if it wasn't an advantage and again, the combination use of their shields is parallel to its effectiveness.
You're simplifying Roman history to another trope. This is not a short blade. And that was the sword that the sword centric battle doctrine that lasted well into the Principate was based upon. The fighting techniques, the training methods, the combination with the scutum, it all came about from a time period when the average Roman infantryman was using a sword with a blade 25-27" long.

And both the Romans and the Spartans both did many things that made almost no sense. The Spartans purposely starved future warriors as children, under nourishing them, which is absolutely 100% proven to stunt growth, creating shorter and weaker adults. The Romans thought wearing crests made them look taller and thus scarier. They build elite units primarily on size of the soldier and not skill. They regularly executed soldiers for crimes that in even Alexander's army would have been a small fine as punishment, and that extra discipline caused enough resentment that Roman legions were notoriously difficult to control.

It is called culture. Some of it is good, some of it stupid. It doesn't need to make sense, since neither the Romans nor the Spartans were creating committees in order to create doctrine or weapons. The Romans were armed and fought a specific way because that was how their fathers' had done it, that was Mos Maiorum, tradition. They changed only when an enterprising general told them to change, and that was done purely on a whim of a general. For every Marius there was a total idiot.

I own a Gladius, I know sword vs sword its a massive disadvantage, coupled with a shield and chest to chest your toast.
If that was true, then during the Roman Republic and Principate the Romans would never have lost a battle. Which they did, a lot.

And just because you have a gladius you are not deadly up close. Are you trained? Do you conduct regular drill? Have you sparred? More so, have you every actually killed anything, like a large animal, or even an actual person? It matters, a lot. Because mindset is far far more important that armament.

Why were the Romans successful? Because they were a warrior culture, more militant than most others. They LOVED warfare. They believed heavily in virtusm, aka manly warrior virtue (it does not translate well into English), encouraging bravery and fighting ability. That was balanced with discipline, total and complete obedience to commands of officers over them, to the point of death or serious pain through beatings. Too much virtus and too little discipline, the Romans were wild and disorderly, similar to how Caesar's legions performed in the later years of the Civil War, in Africa and Spain, when they regularly disobeyed Caesar and the orders of their legates and tribunes just for a chance to kill the enemy. Too little virtus, and too much discipline, and the Romans turned into beaten dogs, who obey out of fear but don't have the spirit to take on the enemy. There are countless examples of this, when Roman armies were full of soldiers crapping themselves and crying in fear because they were scared of an enemy.
 
Apr 2014
63
new york
What were the causes of the change in arms and armour for the Romans during the 3rd Century which eventually developed into the Infantry dressing and arming themselves like a Roman Cavalryman.

Spatha > Gladius

Oval Shield > Scutum

Mail or Scale > Segmentata

Hasta

Was this down to cost? training? they were basically armed not much different to the barbarians they fought.

I've read various reasons attributed such as the old Roman Legion was designed as a conquering force and the later Roman army was developed as more of a regional guard as in the Limitanei.

You could say the Hasta was re-adopted due to an increase in Cavalry threat etc but it seems like a big divergence and to be honest dilution of the once over powering aggressive legions to a quite new emphasis of fighting.
Flatter Oval Shield and dropping of Segmentata were primarily logistical matters.

Spatha might be a combination of barbarism, advancing metallurgy, and dominant cavalry; which leads us to the next one,
Hasta, which is absolutely a response to cavalry. The oft brainstormed idea is not wrong. Roman infantry was reluctant to engage Sassanid cataphracts. We see again and again in history, anytime there is dominant shock cavalry, swordsmen disappear.

Sassanids even approached Roman lines cataphracts first. To help illustrate, I think the curious inactivity of the Roman cataphracts at Yarmouk against the Arabs is not just an innocent happenstance, nor a simple failure of command, but command falling back on habitual Roman doctrine of the era - that of small unit combined arms supporting each other, no rash moves, and therefore no grand Alexandrian charges (which is ultimately what won the battle), partly because the Romans could not often risk their cavalry moving against the Sassanids

Once again, anytime there is dominant shock cavalry, swordsmen disappear. The exception are giant swords which can hack through man and horse, or at least horse legs, but those need requisite metallurgy; no soft bendy swords suitable for that purpose
 
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Dec 2009
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Yes I definitely think the sudden uptick in Cavalry coming from the ERE, Sassanid's and the Hun invasion would of been a massive problem for the Gladius wielding Classical Legions.

The fact that the legions took on basically all the weapons and armour of the Roman Cavalry soldiers speaks volumes.

I also think what me and Aggie were discussing as in the need for a border troop policing the Empire over a conquering aggressive legion also was a big factor, the Romans became more defensive rather than offensive and the classical Legions were designed to steam roll other infantry armies.

The weapons of the late Romans was more for an individual warrior with longer reach, but could also band together in a shield wall.

The Classical short reach against this influx of armoured and long range cavalry would of been a definite issue.

I think all that combined I can form an idea now of why they deviated, Infantry vs Infantry was not the be all and end all of warfare in the Dark ages that it might of been in Classical times especially in the West, Eastern style horse warfare had arrived from both the Middle East and Far Eastern Steppe hordes.

Just picturing a classical Legionaire with a Gladius trying to fight off and hit back against a Hun on horse back is an issue right there.