Shield shapes of the auxiliary soldier. (Scutum forma milites auxiliaribus)
(Adrian Wink)

There has been a lot of discussion by our group members recently with regard to shield shapes attested for auxiliary soldiers. I have examined evidence for both infantry and cavalry types and I would like to share the results of these discussions and present the evidence for here for further discussion.

We have quite a variety of ways to identify the different shield shapes used by auxiliary soldiers from the first and second centuries. These include the remains of leather shield covers (Tegimen) and copper-alloy shield edging finds. Although rare, we also have the remains of the shield boards themselves. However, our main source of reference is once again sculptural so I shall begin with the sculptural evidence.

Propaganda reliefs (The 'Columns' and Adamklissi metopes)
Propaganda relief such as the Columns of Trajan and Marcus clearly show the auxiliary soldiers both infantry and cavalry being almost universally equipped with the long flat oval body shield. That said there is one unusual depiction on Trajan's Column of an auxiliary soldier equipped with a curved rectangular shield. Whether this was an honest mistake by the artist, or whether it actually depicts a soldier of one of the citizen 'Voluntariorum cR' cohorts will be discussed later. We also see on the Marcus Column that by the time of the Marcomannic Wars it appears some legionary soldiers are also equipped with flat oval shields.

The Adamklissi metopes show the auxiliary infantry equipped with large flat oval shields. (Metope 14) Conversely, the cavalry are shown with an assortment of hexagonal, rectangular and long parallel-sided oval shields.

Grave stele
Most infantry soldiers' grave stele which show the soldier with his shield are of soldiers with a legionary background. The most notable to the Society are the gravestones of the soldiers of LEG XIIII GMV which show the actual blazon on the face of the shield. (CIL 13, 06901 -Gnaeus Musius- Aquilifer). Most of the depicted legionary shields are of either curved-oval or curved-rectangular construction.

  The grave stele of 'Annaius Daverzus' an auxiliary soldier of Cohors IIII Delmatarum (CIL 13, 07507) shows a shield that is large, rectangular and completely flat with a horizontal handgrip. The bottom edge of the shield is uncertain, as the carving has suffered damage at some point and has been restored in recent times. However, it is reasonable to assume the continual symmetry of a rectangle. It is a very unusual shape in respect of most modern accepted conceptions of an auxiliary shield. The stele of Firmus of Cohors Raetorum (CIL 13, 07684) shows the more typically depicted long oval body shield also with a horizontal handgrip.
Seen on many cavalry tombstones of the first century are hexagonal or pseudo-hexagonal (curve-edged centre section) shields. Probably Celto-Germanic in origin, they do not appear on sculpture of Roman infantry soldiers. A very good example is the gravestone of 'Imerix' a Batavian trooper of the Ala Hispanorum (ILJug-02, 00843 = AE 1971, 00299). Although the hexagonal shield is not represented on Roman soldiers on the Columns, It does however appear as part of trophy items of equipment at the base. It is also seen on the Arch of Orange again showing its origins and ethnicity.

Shield components (umbones and edging)
Shield shapes can be reconstructed from the remains of copper-alloy shield edging fragments if large enough. For example a ninety-degree bend would generally be accepted as being part of a rectangular shield board. There are finds of parallel-sided oval shields which have been discovered in a Batavian river deposition at Kessel/Lith in the Netherlands alongside both native Germanic and Roman military equipment. (Nico Roymans- Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power: The Batavians in the Early Roman Empire - Amsterdam University Press 2005). The fragment consists of the lower straight portion and the first half of the curved portion. From this we can determine that the shield board was approximately 7-9mm thick with parallel sides and hemispherical ends. It is of a type that can be attested to Batavian use which I intend to reconstruct as part of our display.

Shield components from the Batavian deposit at Kessel.

  Leather shield covers (Tegimen)

Leather shield covers can tell us a great deal about the original shield shapes and sizes. Even in some cases, which unit were using certain types of shield. Leather covers have been preserved as partial remains large enough to allow the calculation of the board size. (C. van Driel-Murray 1999). From Valkenburg (NL) we have the remains of a pointed oval and a parallel-sided oval shield cover, along with remains of rectangular covers.

One notable example from Roomberg (NL) belonging to a soldier of Cohors XV Voluntariorum cR (pf) is particularly interesting in that it is a cover for a rectangular shield with a board wide enough to have been curved in the manner of the legionary scutum (contrary to Bishop and Coulston 'The study of Roman military equipment II p255).

The estimated size for the actual shield board (according to van Driel-Murray) would be in the region of 75cm wide - which would suggest that the board would have been curved to give a face of around 62cm. Given that the owner of this cover was from an auxiliary cohort (not of provincials, but of Citizens) raises the question - "Following the Pannonian revolt and the Varian disaster, (6-9AD) were the Voluntariorum cR, Campestris cR and Ingenuorum cR cohorts raised by Augustus equipped the same as the legionary soldiers"?

At this time the Emperor was certainly in need of replacement heavy infantry units. The levies made on the Citizens were considerable. Augustus' will made certain that the Citizen volunteer cohorts were paid the same as their legionary counterparts. They were also commanded by a Tribune as opposed to the Prefect of the provincial cohorts. Again, from the Roomberg site, we also have the remains of a pilum shaft from the 'Corbulo ditch' also dated to the same period as the shield cover (197-200AD). This would suggest that the Voluntariorum cR cohorts were indeed equipped the same as the legions, which brings us back to the unusual depiction on Trajan's Column of the auxiliary with the curved scutum.

Could the soldier depicted be from a 'cohors Scutata'? Doubtful for two reasons. 1. The two attested 'scutata' units Cohors II Hispanorum Cyrenaica scutata equitata and Cohors I Lusitanorum Cyrenaica scutata equitata were both part-mounted. It seems unlikely that a heavily curved scutum would be carried as a cavalry shield, particularly one this large although the shield shape may have varied within the unit. 2. The fact that the units were not raised from Citizen volunteers.

Shield cover of COH XV Voluntariorum cR - Roomberg (NL)

  Shield boards

The only surviving example of an auxiliary shield board of the first century comes from Doncaster or Danvm. (Published by Paul C. Buckland - Dept of Archaeology and Prehistory University of Sheffield 1986). The shield was excavated in 1971 beneath the rampart of the 2nd century fort at Danum (Doncaster) Paul Buckland sums it up in his opening paragraph on the shield:

"Whilst the majority of the objects found on Roman sites of the region can be matched by many similar pieces from elsewhere in Britain, the remains of the shield from Doncaster are so far unique in the Province and therefore merit fuller discussion."

Very careful excavation and post excavation research revealed the shield to be made of 3 -ply wood 10mm thick. The outer horizontal layers of the shield are alder whilst the transverse grain inner vertical core is oak. The shield was "flat and rectangular with rounded ends, being 125cm long by 64cm wide; the shallow segmental boss lying 65cm above the base of the board). The shield did not have a metal edge to it. The boss was of iron and a simple round dome and flange.

There is some evidence for bronze sheeting applied to the shield in such a way as to back the boss and create a decorative section reinforcing the spine of the shield and across its width. Buckland states "many of the minute fragments of bronze sheet found had curved edges and it is possible that the whole had once been decorated with a curvilinear pattern in the Celtic style"

The inner and outer surfaces of the shield were faced with leather or rawhide (found from chemical analysis). An iron ferrule on the inside perhaps held a leather carrying strap to swing the shield over the shoulder when not in use. The shield has a vertical handgrip of iron and is similar to another vertical iron grip from Newstead (Trimontium). Upon this evidence Buckland suggests that it may be a cavalry shield.

Reconstruction of the Doncaster shield board
So, to conclude, what evidence of variation do we have for the auxiliaries in terms of the shield shapes of the first and second centuries? I have summarised the information into two tables. *I have included the Doncaster shield in with the infantry shields even though it had a vertical grip. I have made and used reconstructions of this shield, (The Vicus' auxiliaries use this design) and the vertical grip does actually increase its functionality in combat. Because the boss is offset, it balances beautifully, its vertical grip is however not so suited to drilling, but it is said that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"

For cavalry use:
Type 1. Hexagonal/pseudo-hexagonal Cavalry tombstones, Adamklissi metopes
Type 2a. Large oval (flat) Shield cover, The Columns, tombstones
Type 3. Large oval curved Adamklissi metopes
Type 4a Flat rectangular Doncaster, Adamklissi metopes, tombstones

For infantry use:
Type 5. Parallel-sided oval Shield cover, bronze/brass edging fragments

Type 6.

Curved rectangular Shield cover, The Columns
Type 2b. Large oval (flat) Shield cover, The Columns, Adamklissi
Type 4b Flat rectangular Tombstones, possibly Doncaster*

From the evidence presented above it would appear that six distinctively different shapes are seen in use by the auxiliary troops, (omitting the small 'caetra' of the Iberian slingers and the 'parma' of the standard bearers) and these are presented here for further discussion. It would seem that the equipment used by the auxiliaries be they infantry or cavalry is far more varied that that of the legions. Tacitus himself, having described the legions then goes on to say that he will not describe the auxilia because the auxilia present such complexity and variety that he cannot afford to devote the necessary space to the subject.


Tacitus - "The Histories" (book IV) Penguin edition.

Bishop M.C. and Coulston J.C. "Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome" 2005

Buckland. Paul C - Roman South Yorkshire: A Source Book. Dept of Archaeology and Prehistory University of Sheffield 1986

Driel-Murray C. van " A shield cover of Cohors XV Voluntariorum cR" 1999 Goldsworthy .A. "The Complete Roman Army".

Robinson H. Russell - "The Armour of imperial Rome"' - Lionel Leventhal publishers Ltd 1975

Roymans Nico "Ethnic identity and imperial power"' - Batavians in the early Roman Empire - Amsterdam University Press, Netherlands 2005.

©RMRS 2010