Roman soldiers were famed for their organization and standardized equipment. But why were Roman shields the shape they were?
Roman shield shapes varied and curved rectangular shields were generally used by legionaries while flat oval shields were used by auxiliary units. There are several reasons that curved shields could have been used such as to help in formations and to protect more of the soldier’s body.
Read on to find out more about Roman shields and how they used them.
Types of Roman Shields
Considering the long history of ancient Rome, from the Roman Kingdom of the 8th century BC to the fall of the western half of the empire in the 5th century AD, many different military styles and tactics were used. It was this adaptability that often gave the Romans their advantage and it is no surprise that Roman shields also varied significantly over history.
In the early days of Roman military history (in the kingdom and early republic), soldiers would use shields called a clipeus, similar to Greek circular shields that would be used in a similar way to ancient Greek warfare with phalanx formations.
A curved shield known as a scutum is thought to have been adopted in the 4th century BC, with Plutarch mentioning its use in a battle in 366 BC. These longer shields were not Roman inventions and had been used by Italic tribes long before the Roman Republic.
Some of these longer shields were rectangular and others were oval, but with time, most would become rectangular. These long, rectangular curved shields were used by Roman legionaries, while Roman auxiliaries would use flat, oval shields.
Roman legionaries needed to be Roman citizens and were primarily heavy combat infantry, while auxiliary soldiers did not need to be Roman citizens and could use military service as a way to advance, fulfilling roles varying from cavalry to infantry and archery.
Auxiliary soldiers would not often need to engage in heavy combat like legionaries and their shields would, therefore, reflect the style of combat that they engaged in.
The scutum seems to have stopped being used sometime in the 3rd century, with Roman soldiers using round or oval shields instead. The shields used at the time of Emperor Constantine I, the first Christian emperor who, according to legend, ordered his soldiers to paint the Greek letters chi and rho on their shields to possibly represent Christ, would have likely been oval.
Considering the role of a Roman legionary, their shields would need to provide them with a large amount of protection, protecting the soldier’s entire body if necessary. This would allow soldiers to safely advance against enemy archers while providing a good level of protection in close combat.
The shape of the shield also allowed legionaries to deploy creative defensive tactics, such as the testudo (tortoise) formation that would surround a unit of legionaries with shields to allow them to advance with more protection.
Scutum shields were generally made out of wood, with different layers of wood glued together to add to the strength and allow it to be curved. They were then covered with leather, with a grip in the middle of the back of the shield to hold.
On the reverse of this grip, on the front of the shield, there was often a metal boss that soldiers could use as a weapon to push their opponents. Shields would also often feature ornate designs, such as a wreath to symbolize victory, a lightning bolt as a symbol of Jupiter, eagle wing motifs to represent the army, and other religious imagery.
Few Roman shields have survived in good condition and just one scutum has been found close to intact. This scutum, dating back to the 200s AD, was found at a Roman fort in Syria and featured designs including an eagle to symbolize the army, a lion, and swastikas, perhaps as a symbol of good luck.
Why Were Roman Shields Curved?
In short, Roman shields came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with a curved, rectangular shield called a scutum being used from the 3rd century BC until the 3rd century AD. Perhaps because of its longevity and because of its association with the Roman legionaries, it is the most famous of the Roman shields, but it only reflects one style of Roman combat.
The scutum was large and curved to primarily provide a large amount of protection for the user while allowing soldiers to advance in a safer manner and use innovative formations like the testudo. The advantages of having a curved shield are evident in close combat situations, shown by many police forces using them today in riots.