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Helmets of the Roman Army

Evseenkov A.S.

Galea or Cassis (Latin: Galea / Cassis) - the ancient Roman term for a helmet. In the Roman army, the helmet was one of the main pieces of protective gear and was used by all combat units, such as legionaries, auxiliaries, and praetorians. It was typically worn with a sub-helmet made of felt, fabric, or leather.

Helmets in the Roman army did not provide full head protection - the face was always left exposed, which, given the tactics used, was not a significant issue. The exceptions were cavalrymen and standard-bearers, whose faces could be covered by a mask. The helmet was designed to protect the cheeks, crown, and back of the head, meaning the metal covered almost everything, leaving only the ears and face exposed. In a combat stance, the back of the helmet also protected part of the neck and upper back, leaving only a small vulnerable area.

Prehistory

Helmets were used by almost all ancient civilizations. In Ancient Rome, the first models likely appeared under the influence of Celtic culture, where this type of protective gear was especially widespread. The first models of Roman helmets were almost completely copied from the Celts. This type of helmet was named "Montefortino," after the Celtic burial site Montefortino in northern Italy. The early models, unlike imperial helmets, did not have such large neck guards and had slightly different protective features. The most common material for making these helmets was bronze alloys. There are theories that helmets could be made not only by forging but also by casting, and a combined production method is also suggested (casting a blank first, then forging it to the final shape). At the top of the helmet, there was often a mount for a plume in the form of a small "knob" into which feathers or horsehair were inserted. The Montefortino helmet was used from the 4th century BC to the 50s AD.

Montefortino helmet from the Celtic necropolis of Serra San Quirico. 3rd century BCE
Montefortino helmet bas-relief. Carsulae Archaeological Park of Umbria. Dating from the 3rd century BCE to the beguinning of the 1st century CE
Diagram of the "Evolution" of Helmets According to Connolly
Montefortino on the Capitoline Monument 91 BC Rome.

Helmets in the Roman Army during the Principate Era

In the early Principate era, a new type of helmet, often referred to as the imperial type, replaced the Montefortino helmet. However, this transition was not instantaneous, and the Montefortino helmet continued to be used alongside the imperial type throughout the 1st century AD. The imperial helmet was used by Roman legionaries from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD. These helmets are often named after their places of discovery; for instance, in Germany, they are known as Weisenau helmets. The ancient historian Connolly divides the imperial type helmet into two subtypes: the imperial Italic and the imperial Gallic. The primary distinction between them, and the basis for this classification, is that Gallic helmets feature embossed "eyebrow" waves on the forehead. This distinction is somewhat arbitrary, as the variety of finds makes classifying individual specimens challenging. Connolly also suggests that auxiliaries used helmets similar to those of the legionaries but simpler and cheaper to produce. It is also theorized that worn-out legionary equipment was handed down to the auxiliaries. Due to the stylization by artists, the preserved illustrative sources do not currently allow for distinguishing between legionary and auxiliary helmets.

A legionnary wearing a helmet. Trajan's column. Early to mid 2nd century CE
A legionnary wearing a helmet. Trajan's column. Early to mid 2nd century CE
An auxillary wearing a helmet. Trajan's column. Early 2nd century CE

Imperial helmets were made from bronze and iron alloys, with iron gradually replacing bronze over time. Bronze still dominated in the 1st century AD (as evidenced by the significantly greater number of bronze helmets found). However, by the 2nd century AD, the majority of archaeological finds are made of iron. Imperial helmets featured a solid dome with two cheek pieces, pivotally attached by hinges. They were often richly decorated with metal appliqués, embossing, enamel, and sometimes silver plating. The metal, especially iron, could be treated for corrosion resistance. The dome of the helmet was reinforced with crossbars for added strength against blows from above. Visors were used for additional face protection, and neck guards were used to protect the back of the head and neck.

Imperial gallic E helmet. Iron with bronze decorations. National Archaeological Museum of Madrid. Mid-1st century CE
A Weisenau helmet. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
Imperial italic J1 helmet. Theilenhofen. Iron with bronze inserts. First quarter of the 2nd century CE

It is also important to note the lifespan of the helmets. In the Roman army, there was a tradition of signing personal items to denote ownership and prevent theft. Helmets have been found signed by three different names. Even assuming not all owners survived their service, the helmets still had a considerable service life—approximately 50 years.

A Signed helmet. Imperial Gallic I type. Found in Rijswijk, on the Rhine, 15 km from the Batavian settlement of Til Passevaie. Mid to late 1st century CE
A Signed helmet. Imperial Gallic I type. Found in Rijswijk, on the Rhine, 15 km from the Batavian settlement of Til Passevaie. Mid to late 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic I helmet type. Found in Rijswijk, on the Rhine, 15 km from the Batavian settlement of Til Passevaie. Mid to late 1st century CE

Helmet in the Roman Army during the Era of the Soldier Emperors and the Dominate

At the end of the 2nd century AD, the Niederbieber type helmets became widespread in the Roman army, marking the pinnacle of the evolution of imperial helmets from the Principate era. According to archaeological finds, these helmets could be made entirely of bronze or steel, or of steel with bronze elements.

Niederbiber-type helmet of the Heddernheim subtype, preserved in the Frankfurt Archaeological Museum, 180-300 CE, front view
Niederbiber-type helmet of the Heddernheim subtype, preserved in the Frankfurt Archaeological Museum, 180-300 CE, side view

These helmets remained in use until the last decades of the 3rd century AD, and according to some sources, until the first decade of the 4th century AD. However, from the second half of the 3rd century, Niederbieber type helmets began to be replaced by simpler ridge helmets. These helmets were assembled from two halves joined by a longitudinal ridge, clearly imitating Persian helmets, as wars with the Persians were ongoing throughout the 3rd and 4th centuries. These helmets are often grouped into two main categories: Intercisa, most commonly found in archaeology and iconography as helmets of regular soldiers, and Berkasovo, considered primarily cavalry and officer helmets. However, finds of both types of helmets often bear traces of gilded foil, embossing, and some specimens are richly decorated with gemstones and colored glass.

Helmet of the Intercissa type, found in Augst, second half of the 3rd century CE, Römermuseum Augst.
Intercissa-type helmets (bottom) and their museum reconstructions (top), Magyar Nemzeti Museum, 4th century AD
Berkasovo-type helmets: a and b - Novi Sad, Vojvodina Museum, c and d - Nurnberg, Deutsches National Museum.
Helmet of the Berkasovo type, Concesti subtype, burials near the village of Concesti, second half of the IV century A.D. State Hermitage Museum, inv. number: 2160-37

Crests and Officer Helmets

Officers likely used the same type of helmet as legionaries but with some modifications. Members of the standard-bearing group could wear the helmet with a mask and secure a predator's skin on top. Centurions attached a transverse crest (or plume) made of horsehair or feathers to their helmet. For this purpose, a "rosette" for the crest holder was located on the helmet's crown, with two rings on the sides to fix it in a transverse position. There is a theory, often seen among Western reenactors, that optio used longitudinal crests and a pair of feathers inserted on the sides. However, there is no archaeological evidence to support this. Only one imperial helmet has been found with inserts on the sides, but whether they were used for feathers and whether this was indeed an optio's helmet remains a big question.

A fragment of a stele with a centurion from the 15th "Apollonian" Legion (Legio XV Apollinaris Pia Fidelis). Discovered in 1880 in the ruins of the Roman Carnuntum (Latin Carnuntum), reposited in Austria, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. 1st century CE
Imperial Italic D helmet. There is a "socket" for the crest. Iron with bronze decorations. Found at the bottom of the Rhine, Mainz (Germany). City Museum of Worms. 4th quarter of the 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic F helmet. The main material is iron. Found in Witcham Gravel, Ely, Cambridgeshire. Reposited in the Canterbure Roman Museum. Early to mid 1st century CE

Evidence of probable crest wearing on helmets includes one found crest with black horsehair, as well as numerous "forks" for attaching crests to helmets of various constructions and shapes. Crests were tied to the helmet with cords through rings near the ear holes if the helmet belonged to a centurion, or on the forehead and back of the head if the crest was attached longitudinally. For legates and praetorians the crest could also be attached longitudinally, and the plume could be inserted into a special slot resembling a "cassette."

Crest holder. The material is a copper-containing alloy. Windisch, Switzerland. 40-140 CE
A horsehair crest (according to the main version - from moss "Hair moss"). Chesterholm Museum Bardon Mill, Hexham NE47 7JN, England. 1-2 century CE
Crest holder. Early to mid 1st century CE

Reenactment

Most helmets are suitable for both legionaries and auxiliaries. The main thing is to choose the correct reconstruction period. Since there is evidence that helmets could change owners multiple times, their usage period could exceed 50 years! This means that earlier helmets could be used at the beginning of the second century, but not vice versa - later helmets cannot be used for earlier periods. For reconstruction, there are two approaches to helmet production - authentic seamless and stylized welded. The latter is cheaper, and it is recommended to start with it by choosing the simplest and cheapest type - for example, Imperial Italic J1. Later, one can strive for more interesting and seamless options.

Imperial Italic J1 helmet, reenactment
Imperial Italic D helmet, reenactment
Imperial Italic G helmet, reenactment

Related Topics

Legionnary, Auxiliary, Centurion, Vexillarius, Praetorian, Celts, Optio

Literature

Early to mid first century

Imperial Gallic B helmet. Museum Carnuntinum, Austria, Bad Deutsch-Altenburg. Beguinning of 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic B helmet. Museum Carnuntinum, Austria, Bad Deutsch-Altenburg. Beguinning of 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic B helmet. Museum Carnuntinum, Austria, Bad Deutsch-Altenburg. Beguinning of 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic B helmet. Museum Carnuntinum, Austria, Bad Deutsch-Altenburg. Beguinning of 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic B helmet. Museum Carnuntinum, Austria, Bad Deutsch-Altenburg. Beguinning of 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic C helmet. Found in Sisak, Croatia, in the Kupa River. Archaeological Museum of Zagreb. Second quarter of the 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic C helmet. Found in Sisak, Croatia, in the Kupa River. Archaeological Museum of Zagreb. Second quarter of the 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic A helmet. Iron. From Nijmegen. Beguinning of the first century CE
Imperial Gallic A helmet. Iron. From Nijmegen. Beguinning of the first century CE
Imperial Gallic A helmet. Iron. From Nijmegen. Beguinning of the first century CE
Imperial Gallic A helmet. Tinned bronze. Private collection of Axel Guttmann. Beguinning of the first century CE
Imperial Gallic A helmet. Tinned bronze. Private collection of Axel Guttmann. Beguinning of the first century CE
Imperial Gallic A helmet. Tinned bronze. Private collection of Axel Guttmann. Beguinning of the first century CE
Imperial Gallic A helmet. Tinned bronze. Private collection of Axel Guttmann. Beguinning of the first century CE
Imperial Gallic B helmet. National Archaeological Museum of Madrid. Early 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic B helmet. National Archaeological Museum of Madrid. Early 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic F helmet. The main material is iron. Found in Witcham Gravel, Ely, Cambridgeshire. Reposited in the Canterbure Roman Museum. Early to mid 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic F helmet fragment. The main material is iron. Found in Witcham Gravel, Ely, Cambridgeshire. Reposited in the Canterbure Roman Museum. Early to mid 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic F helmet fragment. The main material is iron. Found in Witcham Gravel, Ely, Cambridgeshire. Reposited in the Canterbure Roman Museum. Early to mid 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic F helmet fragment. The main material is iron. Found in Witcham Gravel, Ely, Cambridgeshire. Reposited in the Canterbure Roman Museum. Early to mid 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic F helmet fragment. The main material is iron. Found in Witcham Gravel, Ely, Cambridgeshire. Reposited in the Canterbure Roman Museum. Early to mid 1st century CE
Imperial Italic helmet Weisenau. Bronze. The height of the helmet with a stand is 400 mm, the depth is 360 mm, the dome width is 200 mm, the neck guard width is 260 mm. Cheek plates are a modern reenactment. Sold at the Hermann Historica auction. May auction # A79aw, lot # 1051. Early to mid 1st century CE
Imperial Italic helmet Weisenau. Bronze. The height of the helmet with a stand is 400 mm, the depth is 360 mm, the dome width is 200 mm, the neck guard width is 260 mm. Cheek plates are a modern reenactment. Sold at the Hermann Historica auction. May auction # A79aw, lot # 1051. Early to mid 1st century CE
Imperial Italic helmet Weisenau. Bronze. The height of the helmet with a stand is 400 mm, the depth is 360 mm, the dome width is 200 mm, the neck guard width is 260 mm. Cheek plates are a modern reenactment. Sold at the Hermann Historica auction. May auction # A79aw, lot # 1051. Early to mid 1st century CE
Vaisau helmet type, Imperial Italic. The height of the helmet is 19.5 cm, it weights 1400 g., made out bronze. Courtesy Hermann Historica, International auction-Munich-D. Early to mid 1st century CE
Vaisau helmet type, Imperial Italic. The height of the helmet is 19.5 cm, it weights 1400 g., made out bronze. Courtesy Hermann Historica, International auction-Munich-D. Early to mid 1st century CE
Vaisau helmet type, Imperial Italic. The height of the helmet is 19.5 cm, it weights 1400 g., made out bronze. Courtesy Hermann Historica, International auction-Munich-D. Early to mid 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic B helmet. Found in Klakanje, Yugoslavia. Beguinning of 1st century CE
Weisenau Imperial gallic C helmet. Found in Siscia. Arheological museum in Zagreb, Croatia. Early to mid 1st century CE
Roman bronze helmet. Found in France (Druzenheim). Early to mid 1st century
Roman imperial gallic helmet, Weisenau. Iron. Nijmegen. Beguinning of the 1st century
Coolus type E helmet. Bronze. The British Museum. Early to mid 1st century CE
An Agent-Port helmet. Found in Rouen, France. Reposited in the Aalen Museum, Germany. First half of the 1st century AD
Vaisau helmet type, Imperial Italic. The height of the helmet is 20 cm, bronze. Private collection. Beguinning of the 1st century CE
A Roman helmet dating from the 1st century CE. The helmet was discovered in ancient amphitheater near Besancon, France. The helmet was originally silvered, and also the helmet has mounts for the crest.
Bronze helmet found in Anapa in 2023. I-th century AD
Bronze helmet found in Anapa in 2023. I-th century AD
Roman iron helmet. National Museum of the Roman Legion Carleon. first half of the first century AD
Roman iron helmet. National Museum of the Roman Legion Carleon. first half of the first century AD
Roman iron helmet. National Museum of the Roman Legion Carleon. first half of the first century AD
Roman iron helmet. National Museum of the Roman Legion Carleon. first half of the first century AD
Roman iron helmet. National Museum of the Roman Legion Carleon. first half of the first century AD

Mid to late first century

Imperial Italic D helmet. There is a "socket" for the crest. Iron with bronze decorations. Found at the bottom of the Rhine, Mainz (Germany). City Museum of Worms. 4th quarter of the 1st century CE
Imperial Italic D helmet. There is a "socket" for the crest. Iron with bronze decorations. Found at the bottom of the Rhine, Mainz (Germany). City Museum of Worms. 4th quarter of the 1st century CE
Imperial Italic D helmet. There is a "socket" for the crest. Iron with bronze decorations. Found at the bottom of the Rhine, Mainz (Germany). City Museum of Worms. 4th quarter of the 1st century CE
Imperial Italic D helmet. There is a "socket" for the crest. Iron with bronze decorations. Found at the bottom of the Rhine, Mainz (Germany). City Museum of Worms. 4th quarter of the 1st century CE
Imperial Italic D helmet. There is a "socket" for the crest. Iron with bronze decorations. Found at the bottom of the Rhine, Mainz (Germany). City Museum of Worms. 4th quarter of the 1st century CE
Roman iron helmet. Leiden-Matilo, Leiden, Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden. Mid to late 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic D helmet. It was destroyed during the Second World War. Mid-1st century CE
A survived fragment of the Imperial Gallic D helmet. Mid-1st century CE
Imperial Gallic G helmet. It was found on the Rhenish Limes, in Germany, in the Mainz-Wiesenau area. The Museum of Worms. Mid to late 1st century AD
Imperial Gallic G helmet. It was found on the Rhenish Limes, in Germany, in the Mainz-Wiesenau area. The Museum of Worms. Mid to late 1st century AD
Auxiliary Cavalry B type helmet, "Weiler". Bronze. Mid to late 1st century.
Auxiliary Cavalry B type helmet, "Weiler". Bronze. Mid to late 1st century.
Imperial italic C helmet. Found in Po in the Soarz of Villanova d'Arda in 1895. Weights 1655 g. Courtesy Stibbert Museum, Florence. Mid to late 1st century CE
Imperial italic C helmet. Found in Po in the Soarz of Villanova d'Arda in 1895. Weights 1655 g. Courtesy Stibbert Museum, Florence. Mid to late 1st century CE
Auxiliary infantry roman helmet, type B. Bronze. Found on the Rhine near Mainz. Mainz Museum, Germany. Mid to late 1st century AD
Auxiliary infantry roman helmet, type B. Bronze. Found on the Rhine near Mainz. Mainz Museum, Germany. Mid to late 1st century AD
Vaisau helmet type, Imperial Italic. Bronze. Found in Kiel (Germany). Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum - Mainz. Third quarter of the 1st century CE
Vaisau helmet type, Imperial Italic. Bronze. Found in Kiel (Germany). Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum - Mainz. Third quarter of the 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. Bedriacum, Courtesy Civico Museo Ala Ponzone – Cremona-IT. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. Bedriacum, Courtesy Civico Museo Ala Ponzone – Cremona-IT. Mid to late 1st century CE
Bronze Roman helmet. Cortesia, Carnuntinum Archaeological Museum. Mid-1st century CE
Bronze Roman helmet. Cortesia, Carnuntinum Archaeological Museum. Mid-1st century CE
Bronze Roman helmet. Cortesia, Carnuntinum Archaeological Museum. Mid-1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Bronze. The Axel Guttmann collection. Mid to late 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic C helmet. Found in the Kupa River, Croatia. Mid-1st century CE
"Vaizau" helmet type. Iron. Augsburg Museum. Mid to late 1st century CE
Imperial Gallic K helmet. Iron. Found in Wiesbaden (Germany). Municipal Museum - Wiesbaden-D. Mid to late 1st century CE
Imperial gallic C helmet. It has preserved organic traces (marten, skin and feathers). It may have been "adapted" to use for the Batavian auxilia. Burg Linn Museum. Mid to late 1st century CE
Coolus I helmet. Bronze. The helmet can be considered as a hybrid between the Haguenau model and the subsequent Weisenau model. Height 18 cm, width 30.9 cm, length 31 cm. Mid to late 1st century CE

Early to mid second century

Imperial italic J1 helmet. Theilenhofen. Iron with bronze inserts. First quarter of the 2nd century CE
Imperial italic J1 helmet. Theilenhofen. Iron with bronze inserts. First quarter of the 2nd century CE
Imperial italic J1 helmet. Theilenhofen. Iron with bronze inserts. First quarter of the 2nd century CE
Imperial italic J1 helmet. Theilenhofen. Iron with bronze inserts. First quarter of the 2nd century CE
Imperial Italic G helmet. Found in a cave near Hebron (Palestinian Authority, Israel). It is believed that it belonged to the legionnary from Legio X Fretensis. Early to mid 2nd century CE
Imperial Italic G helmet. Found in a cave near Hebron (Palestinian Authority, Israel). It is believed that it belonged to the legionnary from Legio X Fretensis. Early to mid 2nd century CE
Imperial Italic G helmet. Found in a cave near Hebron (Palestinian Authority, Israel). It is believed that it belonged to the legionnary from Legio X Fretensis. Early to mid 2nd century CE
Weisenau model of imperial Gallic with a crosshair reinforcement on the top of the helmet. Found in Caras Severin in Romania. Iron. Size 29.5 x 11.5 x 19 cm. Beginning of the 2nd century CE
Iron Helmet from Alba Iulia, 2nd century AD
Iron Helmet from Alba Iulia, 2nd century AD