A few notes on the design and use of the shield in the Roman Imperial Army following a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London
Simon James Atkinson Turney has lately put his name rather high in the list of my favourite writers. Which led to a strange feeling and an even stranger relationship as Simon, unlike my other favourite writers, is very accessible and very engaging. I think of him, therefore, first and foremost as a social individual and only afterwards an author (I did not say friend as I have only gained this title on facebook, which counts for little).
Simon also does reenactment and sometimes talks about it on his blog. After his most recent Roman adventure I noticed and took particular interest in a picture of his shield. This picture:
I was greatly surprised by the flat wooden grip, as I have always thought the grip of the shield would be the typical two leather straps, one of which goes over the forearm and the second is grabbed by the palm of the left hand. While there is some uncertainty over this, the majority of the researchers and reenacters seem to be convinced this is the grip that was used on the Roman shields. I wasn't. So I went to the closest, most accessible source: Trajan's Column V&A cast. And bam! - here's my proof:
The two guys in the center of the picture are most certainly Romans (easy to identify by their helmets - with the transverse metal straps reinforcements and the ring at the top - the specially adapted design for the Dacian campaigns). They are also most certainly holding the shield the way I thought they would. It took a while to find them and there are many more instances of the inside of Dacian shields, as the Dacians are on the defensive a lot more. The Dacian shield's grip is identical, but this does not necessarily say anything about the Roman army, unless you count the many occurrences of the two point grip, but even that is circumstantial:
Upon leaving, I noticed something else that would further advance my case: John Deare's Caesar invading Britain (1796):
Pretty obvious, no?
However, Deare's sculpture is useless in this conversation, for a number of reasons: first, it cannot possibly be considered historically accurate, and not only because of the intervening 18 centuries between the events and their depiction. It is highly unlikely Caesar ever looked like Deare depicts him here, or wore clothes that were even remotely similar. Then, remember when I was talking about the innovations of the helmets during the Dacian campaigns? Well, these two helmets are already innovated, almost 2 centuries before. Then we have to consider the influence that medieval weaponry could have had on Deare's conception and questions are hanging around the artist's level of documentation. Furthermore, there is a detail in Deare's pictures that almost blows my case out of the water. Here:
Caesar's grip is also questionable, but how is that guy in the middle holding his shield? And why is his shield square, not round? Or why is he wearing a lorica segmentata, not chain mail like the previous guys? It becomes obvious, no? He is a legionary (heavy infantry), whereas the round shield, chain mail wearing guys are auxiliary (light infantry). Therefore, we have to differentiate between the various bodies of the Roman Army. On the column, we can distinguish three types of Roman shields:
1. The round shield - Celtic in origin and specific to auxiliaries (probably none of them Latin). This has most certainly leather straps for holding in a fight.
2. The square shield - adopted from the Greek hoplites, this is the shield used to create the famous phalanx and the Roman testudos. It is the weapon of the Roman legionaries and the most representative of the Roman shields.
3. The hexagonal shield - as far as I know, this is a typical Roman design, and was used by the Praetorian guard, the elite troops of the army with much less active duty and mostly ceremonial roles.
Far as I could muster, there is no instance of the inside of either a square or a hexagonal shield on Trajan's column. The legions are always in a tidy formation:
This picture reveals little, if anything, about the grip of the shield. Most likely, they are using the wooden handle to hold the shield, but whether there is a leather strap safety or not is hard to say. Straps were apparently used to carry the shield on the march, and it is possible they doubled as a safety hold in the fight.
These guys here seem to have their left hands bent at the elbow, but whether that is accurate depiction or their arms are just badly proportioned is open to debate. The two-dimensional representation is not a big help either.
So this is that. I will keep looking for more details when I get to Bucharest, as the cast of the column there is taken apart and all panels are exhibited at eye level. The conclusion of my visit to the V&A is that while the round, auxiliary shields were held with the arm bent and tied by two leather straps, the likelihood is that legionaries and the praetorian guard held their shields by the wooden handle behind the umbo (the shield boss), arm being kept straight. To me, it seems like this grip is putting a bigger strain on the hand muscles, it offers no insurance in the case of the palm dropping the shield (as opposed to the safety leather strap of the round shield) and takes away entirely the use of the left palm (this is also extremely reduced with the straps, but it is possible to hold another object - be it a pugio or a pilum - while also holding the shield strap). Some of this can be detailed by the reenactors that have actually used one or more types of shields and I am hoping some of them will bring their input.