Dressed for the Occasion: Clothes and Context in the Roman army
By Michael Alexander Speidel
Heer und Herrschaft im Römischen Reich der Hohen Kaiserzeit (Stuttgart, 2009)
also published in – Wearing the Cloak: Dressing the Soldier in Roman Times, eds. Marie-Louise Nosch and Henriette Koefoed (Oxbow Books, 2011)
Introduction: Modern images and reconstructions of the Roman soldier’s appearance nearly always show a fully-armed, often grim-looking combatant, wearing helmet and armour and sporting several weapons. Such images have heavily influenced the way in which we think of Roman soldiers and the Roman army. There is, of course, some logic to these representations, as they immediately reveal the person’s military profession. It is therefore not surprising to find them in usealready by the Roman soldiers themselves.
Images of fully armed soldiers of all ranks can be found in large numbers on gravestones throughout the first three centuries AD. They supplement the information given by the inscription and add splendour to the tombstone and the memory of the deceased soldier. The context, however, is that of a monument, designed to impress the onlooker. As the design of gravestones was based on choices made by individual soldiers these monuments can therefore serve as a guide for the importance Roman soldiers attributed to the composition of their last appearance as well as for the meaning conveyed by such images.
Several obvious reasons may have led soldiers to choose representations of themselves in full battle gear for their gravestones: Such images would show the deceased to have been a professional soldier with the Roman army, which meansthat during his lifetime he had been an agent of the emperor, representing Roman imperial power, and therefore a person to respect (if not to fear). Such images would also serve to impress the onlooker by the wealth and success the soldier had achieved during his time on earth: a splendid appearance in shining armour, perhaps further embellished by military decorations betraying his bravery on the battlefield. Those who had received promotions could show the insignia of higherranks, revealing their proven capability to be a leader, trusted by their superiors and respected by their comrades, devoted to duty and ready to fight for the Roman empire.