The Late Roman Army


The equipment of a Roman soldier as we know it from a number of documentary series and films differs from the Late Roman military uniform worn by the soldiers on the claustra Alpium Iuliarum barrier system. Why is that so?

In the 3rd and the 4th century, the Roman army fought mostly in civil wars and against the invading peoples. This greatly reduced the number of soldiers, which made the defence of fortified positions much more important than the direct battles. The number of soldiers in legions decreased, probably even to a quarter, to altogether 1,000 soldiers. More and more foreign mercenaries had to be accepted amongst their own soldiers. Both the military equipment and the combat manner were adapted to all of these changes. The great army was gathered only for major battles or marches; in other cases, smaller, fast units were predominant. The latter attacked quickly to destroy their enemies as soon as possible. Such a method of warfare also laid the foundations for medieval warfare.

In the 3rd and the 4th century, a Roman soldier in a legion was much more exposed. The tight military lines often fell apart during the battle and each soldier fought more independently, to which their equipment was adapted as well. The military uniform was no longer unified since the foreign mercenaries brought more and more of their own equipment and weapons.

In the 3rd century, Roman soldiers frequently wore decorated long-sleeved tunics. On top of the latter, they wore a scale armour or chain mail. Open military sandals had been replaced by closed shoes or boots already at the end of the 2nd century; they were popular mainly with soldiers who were stationed in the northern areas of the Empire. By the 4th century, long trousers became a standard part of the military uniform as well.

The officers’ helmets were often decorated with precious stones. The nose-guard appeared only in the 4th century. Such a helmet provided good protection, but it affected the commanders’ hearing. In the 3rd century, the characteristic sword of the Roman army called the gladius was replaced by the spatha, a longer iron sword that had until then only been carried by troopers. Just like the shield, it allowed the soldier to fight more independently. In the 4th century, shields were no longer square, but oval. They were thus more agile and enabled the soldiers more independent combat. Instead of traditional long spears (pilum), various other types of spears began to be used in the Late Roman times. The most common were of simple shapes.

The novelty in the armament was the plumbata, a lead-weighed dart of a length of 50 cm, which the soldiers wore installed on the inner side of the shields. They would throw them with their arms and they were highly effective even at a distance exceeding 60 m. Armed with them were probably only the elite military units.

Fun facts


Foederati were a special unit of foreign, barbarian soldiers in the Late Roman army. Most frequently, they were members of various Gothic tribes who fought in accordance with their own military habits and under their own command.



On a military campaign, a Roman soldier carried 30–50 kg of equipment each day. Did you know that even today a soldier carries with him approximately the same burden?