Tuesday, 8 February 2011

What Roman Soldiers Wear

Book cover

A year ago, I blogged on the subject of "out-of-date" books and what that term might mean.

So I was interested to read an on-line review of the late H. Russell Robinson's booklet, What the Soldiers wore on Hadrian's Wall. While generally enthusiastic, the review -- entitled "Interesting but Outdated" -- still noted that the date of publication (1976; repr. 1979 and 1985) "makes the book slightly outdated".

To set the scene, the 40-page booklet (which is really a single long chapter entitled "Arms and Armour of the Wall Garrisons") discusses cavalry (pages 3-13, with further cavalry-related illustrations on pages 14-19, 26, 28, 30, 34, 36 and 37), the infantry cohorts (pages 25-27, with further infantry-related illustrations on pages 19-23, 30 and 32), the cohortes equitatae (mixed cohorts) (pages 27-29, with illustrations on pages 24 and 38), the cohors sagittariorum (infantry archers) (page 29, with illustrations on pages 33 and 39), and numeri and cunei (irregular troops) (page 31, with relevant illustrations on pages 35 and 40).

The (rightly famous, now deceased) illustrator Ron Embleton supplied nine colour paintings, and some of the characters from these paintings appear on the cover (shown above). Besides copious photographs and sketches of tombstones and artefacts, the book also includes Peter Connolly's drawing of a "bronze helmet for an infantryman of a cohors equitata, 2nd century" (on page 38).

The on-line reviewer, perhaps not realising the pedigree of Russell Robinson (Keeper of Armour in the Tower of London, 1970-78, and author of The Armour of Imperial Rome, 1975), prefers the Embleton-illustrated Hadrian's Wall in the Days of the Romans, with text by the publisher and enthusiast Frank Graham. Of course, as Robinson makes clear in his introduction, Embleton simply followed his instructions to create the paintings that appear in this booklet (many of which reappear in Frank Graham's later compilation). So, in both, we are seeing Robinson's ideas brought to life in full color.

But I wonder why the on-line reviewer thought that Robinson's book was "interesting but outdated". Interesting, certainly. Here are the thoughts of a practising armourer, gathering together evidence for (probably) the first time, and guiding the brush of an illustrator to re-imagine the soldiers of Hadrian's Wall. But outdated? What could be outdated? (Answers on a postcard, please, if you find any out-of-date information in this booklet!)


  1. Haven't there been finds of limb armour at Vindolanda? And, I think there have been developments regarding later Roman equipment. Perhaps that's the issue... but I've not seen the book.

  2. Good point, Zornhau. (And thanks for visiting.) Robinson's "thigh defence for a horseman" (page 28 top-left) from Newstead is now thought to be an armguard.

    The Roman Military Research Society have a page about armguards here.

    But that's just one tiny error. Any others?

  3. I have always enjoyed the paintings. I first ran across the artist Ron Embleton when he did "Wicked Wanda", a recurring strip in "Penthouse" and of course dozens and dozens of Osprey Books, most famously ones about Romans. Between him and Angus McBride, we have some of the finest, if potentially a little dated, drawings of how they would have really looked at the time.

  4. Worth mentioning that Embleton's original artwork from WTSWOHW (a lumpen title for a great little book) is on display in Chesters Museum (fittingly, on Hadrian's Wall) as a tribute to the late HRR. Every book written today is out-of-date tomorrow; what matters is that it is good and this one is.