Common Errors (37): Legionaries

17 August 2010

Lorica hamata (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

I have never been to America, but I know a lot about it. After all, I have seen a lot of movies and read many comics. I know that all Americans live in sky scrapers, that their president lives in a White House, that their policeman use the f-word in every sentence, that their countryside is full of Red Indians and Amish, that everyone carries a gun, that everyone owns shares in big oil companies which are always corrupt, and that superheroes make sure that crime never goes unpunished.

Of course most of this is not true. If you read Spiderman, it is easy to recognize which parts are fictional. We all know that humans cannot make webs. At the same time, it is tempting to believe that the background is real. That city is New York and the catastrophe in the Black Issue did, sadly, take place. MJ is as real as a girl can get – including the animal slippers she’s wearing in one of the Civil War issues. While Peter Parker and MJ are fictional, the background looks credible, and this makes the background of comics and movies an important source for disinformation – see the first section of this article again.

If I present the problem like this, you will immediately recognize the fallacy. But I am pretty sure that while you recognize that Don Quixote never existed, you will immediately accept that the books he has been reading, are real. Are you sure? And will you recognize how much is invented in other literary works? I do not know why we trust the background of our stories, but we do. The story of the wrath of Achilles presuposes a Trojan War. Did it happen? And so on.

I am asking, because one of the greatest sources of disinformation on ancient history is Asterix. Everyone knows that there never was a Gaulish village, and that magic potions don’t exist. But many people take the description of the Roman legions for granted, and believe that all soldiers wore the same armor.

But that’s not true. The type of armor worn by the legionaries in Asterix is called a lorica segmentata (a modern name). But there were other types.

Unarmored legionaries (Mainz Pedestals)

For example, there were always soldiers who wore mail armor, made of thousands of small rings. This is called a lorica hamata. The lorica squamata was made of small scales, resembling the scales a of fish. The Mainz Pedestals clearly show a soldier who wears no armor at all.

Perhaps the question whether all legionaries wore the same type of armor was never duly addressed because our own, modern soldiers all wear uniforms. But why should this apply for ancient Rome as well? There is strong evidence that ancient legionaries wore a variety of armor. If you visit the splendid new museum of Xanten, you can see for yourself: the remains of all kinds of armor, brotherly together in one display, all from one site, which was destroyed in the first weeks of the year 70. Three types of armor next to each other, worn in the same period.

PS
The novels read by Don Quixote are real: there were indeed books called Amadis de Gaula and Belianis.

<Overview of Common Errors>


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