To this day, the might of the Roman army and its soldiers is renowned, conquering and defending vast swathes of land. So, how heavy were the shields they carried with them?
There were many different shapes and sizes of Roman shields carried by different soldiers at different times throughout Roman history. At their heaviest, though, a legionary scutum shield would have weighed around 22 lbs., but shields could often be much lighter.
To find out more about Roman shields throughout history, read on.
Early Roman Shields
The types of shields used throughout Roman history depended on the style of fighting adopted by Roman soldiers, which changed throughout history. In the earliest part of Roman history, namely in the Roman Kingdom and early Republic, up until around the 4th century BC, Roman military tactics typically resembled those used by the ancient Greeks.
The ancient Greek military used soldiers called hoplites that carried large spears and a small, round, yet heavy shield called an aspis (weighing around 16 lbs.), marching in a close formation with a wall of shields and spears called a phalanx. The early Romans used similar tactics with Greek-style shields that they called a clipeus, often decorated with the icon of an ancestor.
These shields were flat and round and carried on the arm, ideal for light infantry and phalanx formations, as well as for other light troops like light cavalry.
Following the 4th century BC, Roman warfare started to need to adapt to take on new enemies, with conflicts with the Carthaginians and Celtiberians in the 3rd century BC exposing the Romans to new technology and styles of warfare.
From around the 3rd century BC, Romans stopped just using Greek-style weapons and started using Celtiberian-style swords called a gladius. They also formed a navy at this point to be able to fight against the naval might of Carthage, based across the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Tunisia.
As warfare and opponents changed, so too did Roman shields and the Greek-style clipeus was generally replaced by another round shield called a parma. These were made of wood with an iron frame with dimensions of around 36 inches across, thought to be around 10 lbs. in weight.
These small, round shields allowed for easy, light movement and were ideal for the warfare of the early-to-middle Roman Republic, with cavalry, javelin throwers like velites, and light infantry carrying them. They could also be oval in shape and continued to be used by later light infantry and cavalry in the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire.
For heavy infantry, the clipeus was also replaced by a large, rectangular, curved shield called a scutum. This is thought to have been adopted by the Romans in around the 4th century BC, being a style of shield widely used by Italic tribes at the time and allowing for greater defense as well as tactical creativity.
These shields would typically weigh around 22 lbs. but could vary in size. The best surviving example of a scutum was found in Syria, dating back to the 3rd century AD, decorated with typical Roman symbols for victory and luck like eagles and a laurel wreath.
This range of shields provided Roman soldiers the equipment they needed to protect them either as heavy, shock infantry units or as light, quick units like cavalry or velites. The scutum also allowed heavy infantry to use tactics such as the protective testudo shield formation, protecting soldiers against attacks from above and from the front.
After the Marian reforms of 107 BC, the scutum generally replaced the parma for most soldiers. However, the parma would continue to also be used later by auxiliary soldiers, while the scutum declined in popularity following the 3rd century AD.
In general, following Augustus’s reforms of the Roman army in the 1st century, legionaries would be heavy infantry equipped with a heavy shield like a scutum, while auxiliary soldiers like cavalry or light infantry would be equipped with a typically oval parma.
How Heavy Was a Roman Shield?
Due to the large range of Roman shields over Roman history, matching the various styles of fighting throughout Roman history, there are many different answers to the question of the weight of a Roman shield.
An ancient clipeus would typically be around 16 lbs. while a later scutum would be 22 lbs., with the parma likely lighter than both. However, there would have likely been differences in design and weight for these shields depending on the preference of the soldier.
Few Roman shields have survived, making it even more difficult to definitively say how heavy they were, but the weight of a shield would have depended on whether it was for heavy or light combat.