Talk Report: 2019-11-07

13 November 2019

Roman Army, Facts and Fiction

John Smith

Greeting us in Latin, this was a highly engaging talk from the start; John appeared wearing a soldier's tunic and "boots." "I wear what I study!" he declared. As a mature student, he studied for a degree in archaeology, and is a Roman Army specialist.
In John Smith, November Speaker AD 45 the Romans marched from Kent, covered in dust and rust, unwashed and smelly, to the Mendips. They encountered an indigenous population living in relatively primitive round houses. But the Romans acknowledged that they were good farmers and had minerals such as lead and silver, exporting their resources to Rome. The Romans soon introduced tax and modern houses. One of the most important facts to emerge from this talk was that the Roman Army did not kill the population, rather they used them for their local knowledge, and introduced them to Roman culture and ideas. The Emperor Vespasian was a benign but firm invader/ruler. The Romans were a mix of peoples, dating back to the beginnings of the Empire in 800 BC, and embraced a multitude of religions from all corners of their territory. Each soldier carried a small tablet with him on which he wrote, using it for recording events, and measuring. Counting, and the inch, foot ,mile were introduced to the Britons. John said the citizen soldier was known as a "legionary." He then put on the armour, starting with a brass helmet, with an open face; all the better to communicate and negotiate with your potential adversary, unlike the covered faces under a Viking helmet. These Roman helmets were lined with wool or leather, linen in hot countries, the lining secured with a glue made of bitumen and pine resin. The Romans learnt from their movement across the continent and adopted and adapted an iron helmet from the area we now call Germany. This was more durable. The military cloak was secured by toggles, and under this a tunic/kilt was worn above the knees. This reduced damp and mud round the legs, which would have increased the weight of their clothing. The infantry wore tailor-made segmented armour in battle, but those troops who came to Mendip wore "stealth" armour, quieter and more likely to surprise an opponent, made from iron chain-mail and weighing 12kg, leather being worn underneath. Bolts , large wooden arrows, were fired from ballistic launchers in batches of 5. Their 7 foot spears could be hurled up to 30 yards.The Roman soldier had a choice of 9 different swords, but it seems likely that he bought his own iron dagger. The wooden shield, as John demonstrated, was held just below the eyes, and a "tortoise" formed by holding shields above their heads, to avoid incoming missiles. But for all this bellicose equipment, there were only 5 places recorded where the Romans fought battles with the Britons; negotiation was deemed to be a far more effective way of subduing likely combatants.They walked across Mendip,on gravel roads, wearing studded boots (open sandals,) they each carried 50-60kg of kit. Roman army clothing and equipment There were 40 soldiers garrisoned at Charterhouse, who brought with them roads, houses, law, education, medicine and surgery. We thank them!
This was a talk given by an inspired enthusiast who thrilled us all with his knowledge and insight.

John King.