Die römische Armee im Experiment

[Fourth part of a series of articles; 1, 2, 3; this is a review/summary of Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011]

In the introduction and two first chapters, Christian Koepfer and Sebastian Bernhard describe the project: an attempt to reconstruct the equipment of the Roman soldiers of the age of Augustus. The objects found at Augsburg, Haltern, Dangstetten, Anreppen, and Kalkriese offer a wealth of information. Using the reconstructed equipment, the members of this project group, called Legio XIII Gemina, did several experiments, like building a road in a mountain area (six men could build about twenty meters of road in two days) and a fourteen-day march.

During these experiments, Legio XIII Gemina collaborated with locals schools and a Bavarian broadcasting organization, but the results can be applied by anyone involved in Roman re-enactment. One chapter in the book, by André Niebler, deals with the didactic methods, and explains how the participants interacted with their audience. A similar article, by Florian Himmler, compares the project with an earlier project, and explains how previous errors were now prevented.

Incendiary arrow

After this, the books contains twenty-one chapters on the various aspects of the soldiers’ equipment, tactics, and strategy. In the first of these, Robert Wimmers describes some finds from Augsburg-Oberhausen from a blacksmith’s point of view. I had not expected that I would ever read an article with interest about forging handcuffs, knives, or an “object of unknown purpose”. Florian Dörschel shows in his article that one of Wimmers’ objects may have served as an incendiary arrowhead.

A soldier with shield, spear, and sword

The next weapon to be dealt with is the spear. Mischa Grab vindicates Plutarch, who describes how Marius invented a pilum with a wooden peg that would break upon impact, making it impossible to throw back the missile (Marius 25). The truth of this statement has recently been challenged, but Grab suggests that Plutarch may be right after all.

Building a catapult

Dominik Molnar’s checked Vitruvius’ description of a catapult; he concludes that it is useful as a do-it-yourself guide, but that one needs to have practical experience to understand the tensions within the machine. There must have been a mouth-to-mouth tradition in the Roman army about the finer details.

Moving from weapons to armour, Andreas Raab checked the types of leather that might have been used in a lorica segmentata, and concludes that chamois leather was best.

Three shields

Christian Koepfer, Matthias Bofinger, and Johann Schmalhofer conducted some interesting experiments with shields. In his account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, Cassius Dio says that the shields of the legionaries beame useless because it was raining (Roman History, 56.21.3), but the experiment proved that. although the weight of the shields did indeed vary with the air humidity, this change was not enough to make them unusable or even difficult to use. Nor did the shape become unstable. This again proves that Dio’s account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest is not as reliable as it seems.

The focale is the subject of the article by Josef Löffl. He suggests that on rainy days, it protected a lorica segmentata’s inside against rain, and on hot days, it protected the carrier against the heat of the metal.

The nails of a sandal

In his article about military boots, Florian Himmler arrives upon a very curious conclusion: a legion that was marching for about a month, lost about half a million sandal nails. I was very surprised, but it is interesting to know that the march route of the soldiers to the Harzhorn battlefield can be reconstructed from the lost shoenails.

Turning to the soldiers’ food, Philip Egetenmeier argues that an average legionary or auxiliary soldier might lose some weight during a march. I would have liked to know more, and fortunately, the author seems to be looking forward to further research.

Buckets

The usefulness of water buckets is the subject of Marcel Giloj’s contribution, which had more to offer than I had expected. They were really designed to be very practical, for example to be filled very quickly. Water bags, on the other hand, might leak easily, as Reinhard Nieβner shows; again, information about how to make objects, must have been rendered orally from one craftsman to another, and things are not as easy as they seem.

At the end of the book are several chapters about subjects that are not directly related to the experiments. One of these is an attempt to reconstruct what a German warrior might have looked like in the early third century. He was better armed and protected than I had expected. Ross Cowan deals with fourth-century battle tactics, proving that the army was still excellent, but that its strength was wasted by too many civil wars.

The participants

Markus Handy deals with the strategic roles of XIII Gemina (the historical unit) and XV Apollinaris in Pannonia in the second half of the first century. It seems that the Fifteenth was more often involved in actual fighting than the Thirteenth. This cannot be an optical illusion, caused by the incompleteness of our evidence, because the commanders of the Fifteenth were selected on military experience. Meike Weber offers a similar account of strategy and space, showing that long before the distinction between limitanei and comitatenses was created, there was already a mobile reserve in the hinterland.

All in all, this was delightful to read. Given the nature and scale of the Legio XIII Gemina Project, it is inevitable that Die römische Armee im Experiment does not deal with all aspects of the Roman army, but one theme was almost conspicuous by absence: the way the Romans dealt with information. How to make a perfect water bag or a catapult, the function of certain objects, how to carry a shield and where to march – all this must have belonged to an oral tradition. This book is essentially an attempt to recover the lost stories that belong to the objects, and left me wondering how information spread from Britain to Pannonia to Syria.

Final note: that perennial insult to Anglo-Saxon scholars, the English summary of a text they understand perfectly well, is mercifully absent.

Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011 Frank & Timme; 978-3-86596-365-9; €24,80

Photos on this page taken from the Facebook page of Legio XIII Gemina.

One Response to Die römische Armee im Experiment

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Such a fascinating subject The Roman Army.And well worthy of Experimental Archaeology revealing insights into all manner of things,even their strategy.

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