The Roman Legionary Shield: A Symbol of Empire

Emerging in the early days of the Roman Republic around the fourth century BC, the scutum, literally, ‘shield’, was a vitally important element of the soldier’s arsenal and remained in use for hundreds of years. More than just a weapon, it was central to the expansion of the Roman Empire itself. This is the story of the Roman legionary shield.

Military History
5 June 2024

Alongside the famous gladius sword, the Roman legionary shield, known as the scutum, stands as the quintessential symbol of the Roman Empire’s military prowess and tactical ingenuity. Initially conceived as an oval shield, Roman shield designs evolved to meet the needs of Rome’s formidable legions into the more recognisable curved, semi-cylindrical shape. This ensured maximum defence and manoeuvrability for Roman soldiers, reinforcing the scutum’s role as an indispensable battlefield asset.

Let’s head back in time to discover the amazing story of the Roman soldier’s shield, its history, and the astonishing find at the Dura-Europos archaeological site – the world’s only surviving Roman legionary shield.

The History of the Scutum

Victorious Roman soldiers with scutum shields (Credit: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

From the later years of the Roman regal period to the beginning of the Republic, Rome’s armies utilised the ancient Greek hoplite phalanx formation in battle which required the use of the round aspis hoplon shield. It was well-suited for the tight, cohesive formations of Greek – and later, Roman – infantry. However, as Rome began to expand and face diverse enemies across varied terrains, the limitations of the hoplon became apparent.

Around the early fourth century BC, the Romans changed their military tactics from the phalanx to a more segmented and versatile manipular system, which divided the infantry into fluid sub-units called maniples arranged in three lines (hastati, principes, and triarii) based on the age and experience of the soldiers. This tactic required a new Roman legionary shield.

Some sources, though speculative, suggest the scutum was first used during the First or Second Samnite War, between 343 BC and 304 BC. They also propose that the redesign of the Roman soldier’s shield may have been influenced by Marcus Furius Camillus, a semi-legendary general and dictator from the fourth century BC. However, both his existence and his involvement in specific military reforms have long been subjects of debate.

The updated Roman shield designs were originally oval and flat, but over time – perhaps around the middle of the first century BC – they developed into the curved, rectangular shield that’s become iconic today as the ‘classic’ Roman legionary shield.

The Tortoise

The curved, rectangular design of the Roman legionary shield provided extensive coverage from shoulder to knee, which was particularly useful in open battlefields. The curved, semi-cylindrical shape of the scutum not only offered almost full-body protection by deflecting blows more effectively than the hoplon, but also facilitated the famous testudo (tortoise) formation. It was so-called because it offered excellent protection but was slow moving!

In this formation, Roman soldiers could interlock their shields to form a protective, almost impenetrable, barrier which could absorb and deflect an enemy’s attacks while enabling disciplined and coordinated counterattacks.

This evolution in Roman shield design reflected the Republic’s, and later, the Empire’s, broader military strategy, emphasising flexibility, protection, and the ability to adapt to diverse combat situations, ultimately contributing to Rome’s enduring success and dominance.

The Roman Legionary Shield: Construction

Close-up detail of the Roman legionary shield (Credit: balhash via Getty Images)

Constructed from two or three layers of wood glued together and covered with leather, linen, or canvas, the scutum was reinforced in the centre with a metal boss (known as an umbo), capable of deflecting blows and being used as a brutal offensive tool in close quarters combat. It’s believed that further strips of wood were glued to the back of the shield for reinforcement, and a central wooden handle may have had a sheepskin cover for comfort.

Most were over a metre high in length and 40 – 60 centimetres wide, and may have weighed somewhere between seven and 10 kilograms. The Roman shield designs were said to be incredibly intricate. It’s been suggested they were red to depict Mars, the Roman god of war, and were probably decorated with classic Roman symbols such as eagles, wreathes, or lightning bolts. They may also have contained the individual soldier’s name, rank and legion, perhaps to help identify them on the battlefield but there’s no hard evidence to suggest these identification markers were visible or present.

The scutum was designed to be held in one hand, and was used in some of Rome’s most famous battles, including the battles of Dyrrachium and Pharsalus in 48 BC between Julius Caesar and Pompey, the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC where the forces of Marc Antony and Octavian were pitted against those of Brutus and Cassius, and the Battle of Carrhae between the forces of the Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire in 53 BC.

The Dura-Europos Scutum

Modern-day reenactment of a Roman army (Credit: maxattenborough via Getty Images)

Remarkably, despite the vast numbers that would have been produced, just one Roman legionary shield has survived intact from ancient times. It was excavated from the Dura-Europos archaeological site in modern-day Syria in the early 1930s.

The Dura-Europos scutum is 105.5 centimetres tall and 41 centimetres wide and was constructed using three layers of wood, each layer 30 – 80 millimetres wide and 1.5 – 2 millimetres thick. It was excavated in thirteen separate parts and painstakingly restored to (almost) its former glory, save for a missing umbo and shield hump.

Decorations include a lion, winged Victories and an eagle surrounded by a laurel wreath. The Dura-Europos scutum is housed in the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.

While the Dura-Europos scutum is the most intact surviving example, there are fragments of other scutums that have been found, contributing to history’s understanding of Roman legionary shields.

The Battlefield Behemoth: The Legendary Legionary Shield

The Roman scutum shield (Credit: Kazakov via Getty Images)

The importance of the scutum to both Roman Republic and Empire-era soldiers cannot be overstated. It was more than just a piece of defensive equipment; it symbolised the strength, discipline, and unity of the Roman legions.

The role of the Roman legionary shield in key military victories and its enduring presence in Roman military iconography underscore its significance. It was a vital component in Rome’s expansionist campaigns, contributing to the establishment and lifespan of one of history’s most powerful – and feared – military machines. Its legacy endures, illustrating how a well-crafted piece of military technology can become a symbol of an entire civilisation’s might and ingenuity.


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