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Scutum

Шиманович А.А.

Scutum (lat. Scutum, plural Scuta) – was a very widespread tower shield type in antiquity. Initially it was used by some peoples of Italian peninsula and later, starting from IV century BCE – roman army also adopted it. Originally Scutums were oblong and oval, but later on, closer to I century BCE they became rectangular and square the look which is very familiar to the most of the people – square and semi rectangular. It’s notable, that Scutum wasn’t the only military shield of Roman army. There were several types of them used by different type of troops, though particularly scutum became the most popular shield, which was some sort of Rome’s symbol and the symbol of its mighty legionnaires.

Legio X Fretensis legionnaires with scutums, reenactment

History

There is an opinion among historians, that the Romans adopted Scutum while getting rid of hoplit’s phalanx and adopting maniples. That was the tactics which was introduced during Samnites wars (mid – end IV century BCE.). Before that, roman soldiers used round Clipeuses, which were more similar to early hoplones. Allegedly during these wars Romans did borrow scutums from Samnites. Clypeus — is a round shields, similar to the earlier goplon, and allegedly during these wars, the Romans took over scutum from the Samnites.

This idea is based on several works of antique writers. However ancient roman historian Tit Livius (54 BCE – 17 CE) wrote, that prolonged shields as well as maniple tactics were adopted in the beginning of the IV century BCE. – before Samnite’s wars. Ancient Greek philosopher and a writer Plutarch mentioned in “Parallel Lives” that similar to scutum shield was used during a battle in 366-year BCE. French archeologist P. Koussin claimed, that scutum was used quite a while before Samnite Wars, so Romans didn’t borrow it from Samnites.

The image of oval scutum could be seen on a Bas-Reliefs of commander Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (died 104 CE). Similar scutum was found in Egyptian city Kasr El Harit, which is located near Oasis of Faiyum on the bank of the Nile. (Faiyumian Scutum). Coming closer to the civil wars, the shape of the scutum changes. There are two sctums existing with each other at the same time square one and barrel shaped. Due to the fact scutums were depicted not meticulously we are unable to say with enough certainty, which of two shapes dominated another, so they could’ve used both.

Scutum of Faiyum. The end of the second century BCE – beginning of the first century BCE. Found in 1900. Faiyum oasis, near Kasr El Harit. Citadel of Cairo.
Scutum from Dura-Europos (III century CE) after restoration. Found around 1930, near Dura-Europos. The shield is reposited in art gallery of Weles’ University.

Mostly legionaries used scutums. The Praetorians had their own variation of scutum. It retained is’t oval shape, unlike army’s square variation. Legion’s officers: optiones and centuriones presumable also had scutums. Though the idea can be only drawn from written sources: "Skaeva, who lost an eye, wounded in the hip and a shoulder, with a scutum pierced by arrows hundred and twenty different places, continued to hold fortress gates of his jurisdiction..." – the memory of the Centurion Kassius Skaeva, written down by Gaius Julius Caesar himself during the Battle of Dyrrhachium (48 BCE). Later the herois deed was retaled by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. More than that, gladiators used scutums. Sometimes their shortened form, for example provocators.

Bas-relief from sand stone, depicting three legionaries with sctuums. Found in Culladia cuneiferellus castra, Antonine Wall, Scotland. Reposited in national Museum of Scotland. (II century CE)
Funeral Stella of Gaius Valerius Crispy, legionnaire of Legio VIII Augusta. End of I century CE. Found in Mattium (modern Wiesbaden, Germany)
Bas-Relief from Tropaeum Traiani in Adamclisi (109 CE), depicting legionarries fighting Dacians. Here we can see a battle usage of scutum. The original monument wasn’t preserved, was reconstructed in 1977.

By the third century CE, scutums are no longer in military use. Archaeological findings from Dura-Europos indicate the predominance of oval or round shields among the Romans in the period, which were no longer semi-cylindrical, but were convex or flat. Though word “scutum” survived the fall of Roman Empire and was in use of military vocabulary of eastern roman empire. Even in XI century CE Byzantine Greeks called their heavy cavalry as “sctutati” (гр. Σκυτατοί).

Structure of the scutum

Polybius in “The Histories” described scutum in that manner: “The Roman panoply consists firstly of a shield (scutum), the convex surface of which measures •two and a half feet in width and four feet in length, the thickness at the rim being •a palm's breadth. 3 It is made of two planks glued together, the outer surface being then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. 4 Its upper and lower rims are strengthened by an iron edging which protects it from descending blows and from injury when rested on the ground. It also has an iron boss (umbo) fixed to it which turns aside the most formidable blows of stones, pikes, and heavy missiles in general…”. The description matches a shield of II century BCE.

Structure of the scutum form Dura-Europas

Basis

Through all the time the production of scutum didn’t change: several (usually 9-10) wooden plates as wide as 6-10 cm were put longitudinally and perpendiculary and were glued together by thinner plates from each side (on the outer and inner layer of the shield). So was manufactured wooden basis of the shield, which was around 6mm. Initially the basis was covered in felt, and later, during Republic era, Romans used calfskin and canvas, after that the shield was edged with iron, bronze and sometimes with leather. Then, craftsmen made a round hole in the middle of the shield to place a handle, which was covered with umbon. Initially it was made out of wood and was spindly shaped, and during republic umbons were shaped as square and made out of iron or bronze.

Structure of Faiyum scutum

Umbo

Umbo was a hand protection, covering a hole in the middle with a grip. As was previously mentioned oval scutums had wooden umbos spindle shaped and were attached vertically along the whole shield. Presumably, the umbos not only protected the hand, but also enhanced shield’s durability. The example of spindle umbo can be seen on a Faiyum scutum.

By the Republic era the shape of scutums changed, as well as changed their umbos. Since then they were made out of iron, bronze or brass, became smaller and the shape changed to round, square, or hexagonal. There was a convex round part, which covered a grip. Sometimes umbos could be decorated with stamping.

Decorated Umbo Legio VIII Augusta. First half Second century II CE. Found in Britain, River Tyne. British museum
Round bronze umbo. II century CE. Found in Kirkham, England. Reposited in British Museum

Edging

To enhance shield’s protection properties and durability the edges of scutums were covered with iron, brass or bronze. Also, there was an option with leather edging. (Scutum from Dura-Europos).

According to Polybuis, erly scutums were edged only on the top and bottom, to protect shield from high blows and to prevent damage from the ground, while sides were edgeless. Later scutums were edge from every side, which enhanced protection properties. This also granted significant protection from hacking, for ex. From falx. (weapon of Dacian and Thracians). More than that that made scutum more durable overall enhancing its service life.

Bronze scutum edging. I century BCE – I century CE. Valkhof Museum Nijmegen
Iron ending of the scutum, first half of the I century CE. Found in the forest of Teutoburg. Reposited in Kalkrize Park Museum

Grip

There is a grip in the middle of the scutum, covered by umbo. Unlike most of the medieval shields, the grip of the scutum was positioned horizontally, this was the handiest way to place it, considering shield’s structure. Grips were made out of iron, mostly were prolonged and oval, flattened on the edges, where it was attached to the shield. The earlier scutums could’ve had grips as its middle transverse stiffer.

Findings from Trimontium castle (Newstead), I-II Century CE, bottom left corner can be seen grip of the scutum
Drawings of different grips from Hadrian's Wall (II CE)

Tegumentum

Tegumentum (lat. tegimentum – cover, shell) – is a leaver case used for scutum in case of long hikes. It protected the shield from moisture, prolonging its service life. Usually it was made out of tanned calfskin. Also, separate leather tag was sawn to tegumentum – tabula ansata (lat. Table with hands), which specified a legion of the owner. It’s also worth mentioning, that same tag was put on the shield, if it was specified by legion’s rules. The tag specified legion and cohort.

Scutums Tegumentum, Legio XI Claudia Pia Fidelis. 70-100 years CE. Found in Vindonissa, reposited in the Museum of Vindonissa
Tabula ansata in the middle of tegumentum of Legio XI Claudia Pia Fidelis from Vindonissa
Tegumentum Legio X Fretensis, reconstruction. Tabula ansata can be seen, depicting LEG X FRT

Combat use of Scutum

Considered the shape of shield, grip placement and that legionaries kept their blades on the right side a conclusion can be draw. They held their shields on the left side, covering the side of body from knee to shoulder, unlike their medieval counterparts who held the shield in front of their chest. This allowed legionaries to press enemy in tight formation holding the shield and stabbing from behind the shield wall. According to Polybius, scutum provided Romans advantage in close quarters against Carthaginians during Punic Wars:” Their weapons provide additional defense and confidence due to the size of their shields”.

The unique shape of scutum provided legionaries with ability to perform different combat formations aimed at protection from the arrows and other projectiles as well as in offence and defense. One of the most recognized battle formations is testudo or tortoise formation (lat. Same – Testudo). Usually, people who lack deep knowledge can call other battle formations in the same manner, though they are different: like “tela” (lat. Tela) or “murus” (lat. Murus). Usually these formations were used during sieges, providing legionaries with safe approach to city’s walls or other fortifications protected from any projectiles.

The use of scutums in battle formation testudo on Trajan's Column. First half of the second century CE

Flavius Josephus, jewish historian wrote about the use of scutum during sieges (37 – 100 CE). The siege of Jerusalim in 70 CE in the tract “The Jewish War” was described like that: “ but the Jews beat them off from the cloisters, and repulsed them several times when they were gotten near to the wall, till at length the multitude of the darts cut them off, and made them retire; but the first rank of the Romans rested their shields upon the wall, and so did those that were behind them, and the like did those that were still more backward, and guarded themselves with what they call Testudo, [the back of] a tortoise, upon which the darts that were thrown fell, and slided off without doing them any harm; so the soldiers undermined the wall, without being themselves hurt, and got all things ready for setting fire to the gate of the temple. “

Scutum Decoration

Scutums were often decorated: digma (lat. Digma) was usually put on their outer fabric layer – which could depict different things – lightings, wings, wreaths, and sometimes it also had a number and the name of soldier’s division. According to Tacitus, it was possible to identify with precision which division solider belonged to, as every legion or auxilia had its own unique digma. Tacitus toold about one situation, during second Battle of Bedriacum (69-year CE): two legionaries from Vespasian’s legion took shields with digmas of hostile legions and performed a sabotage damaging catapults.

It’s also assumed, that scutums’s surface could’ve been decorated with different iron or bronze overlaps. This idea is supported by archeological findings of bronze scraps imitating digmas.

Drawing of the digmas from Trojan’s column
The metal fragments formed as a lightning are considered to be a part of digma’s decoration. First half of the I century CE. Found in Teutoburg Forest. Reposited in park-museum Kalkriese

Reenactment

Our club uses barrel shaped scutums in reenactment, with red bases and digma from the beginning of the second century. The scutum itself is 106 cm height, width of the middle – 60 cm, top and bottom corner – 50 cm. Depth of the shield in bend is 22 cm. Thickness is 6 mm. Umbo is made out of iron, round or square. The edging is done with brass.

Legionary wit hscutum from Trajan’s column. First half of the II century CE. The digma of Legio X Fretensis can be seen quite well

Basis of the shield is painted in red, which is historically accurate if looking into historical findings of Masada. In 70-73 CE it was Sieged by X Legio. The digma is yellow, the sample of the digma can be seen on Trojan’s column (beginning of the II CE). There are 4 wings on the digma and lighting with thunderstorm, which symbolizes heralds of Jupiter.

Legionaries of Legio X Fretensis performing tella battle formation. Here we can observe scutums used by the club
Schematics of our club - Legio X Fretensis’ scutum

Related topics

Legionnaire, Hoplon, Clipeus, The Praetorian Guard, Centurion, Gladiator, The provocator

Literature

Hilary & John Travis. Roman Shields: historical development and reconstruction. Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire, GL5 4EP, 2014.

JAMES CURLE, F.S.A. SCOT., F.S.A. A Roman frontier post and it's people. The fort of Newstead in the Parish of Melrose. Glasgow, MDCCCCXI. Originally published by JAMES MACLEHOSE AND SONS for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Joseph Aviram, Gideon Foerster, Ehud Netzer, Guy D. Stiebel MASADA VIII. The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963–1965. Final Reports. ISRAEL EXPLORATION SOCIETY. THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY OF JERUSALEM. JERUSALEM, 2007.

"The Arms and Armour from Dura-Europos, Syria : Weaponry Recovered from the Roman Garrison Town and the Sassanid Siegeworks during the Excavations, 1922-37". University College London (University of London).

Couissin P., Les armes romaines, pp. 224.

Josephus. "The Jewish War" / translated by Ya. L. Chertka in 1900, with an introduction and translator's note. Vekhi Library, 2004.

Livy Titus. Istoriya Rima ot osnovaniya goroda [History of Rome from the foundation of the city]. edited by M. L. Gasparov and G. S. Knabe, vol. I-III. Moscow, 2002

Polybius. Universal History, vol. I (books I-V), Moscow, 1890.

Gallery

Scutums in battle formation “tortoise” on the image of “Maneuvers of Roman army” from the magazine “Nature and people”, 1915
Faiyum scutum. The end of II century, beginning of I century BCE. Found in 1900, Faiyum oasis, near Kasr El Harit. Citadel of Cairo
Early oval scutums depicted on bas-relief of Domicius Agenobarba’s altar. Found in Rome, Campus Martius, Temple of Neptune
Scutum from Dura-Europos (III century CE) after restoration. Found around 1930, near Dura-Europos. The shield is reposited in art gallery of Weles’ University
Tabula ansata Legio X Fretensis, reconstruction
Decorated Umbo Legio VIII Augusta. First half Second century II CE. Found in Britain, River Tyne. British museum
Fragment of the monument depicting scutum with digma. I BCE – III CE, Roman-Germanic Museum, Cologne
Depiction of the scutum with curved edges on a funeral stele of Gaus Samius Krescen, the soldier of XII city cohort. The stell was erected by his brother Fortis, soldier of VIII pretorians cohort. 1 century BCE – III century CE, museum of Moderna
Detail of a stone bas-relief of the first century CE depicting an oval shield decorated with lightning and wings, Turin Museum of Antiquities.
Scurums’ edging. I century BCE – III century CE, Museum of Vindonissa
Umbo from Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, I BCE - III CE
Round brass umbo whith the remains os silvering and guilding. III century CE. Found presumably in lower part of Danube. Reposited in private collection of Axel Gutmann
Gilded image of the imperial eagle on a round umbo
Gilded image of the goddess Minerva on a round umbo
Stone fragment of the ancient gate of Porta Ticinese in Milan, depicting a shield with wings, lightning and L-shaped ornament (gammadia) in the corner, I-th century BCE-III-th century CE, Museum of Arechology of Milan
Fragment of an umbo with a square plate made of bronze, dating from the II century CE. It is 18.3 cm wide and decorated with dots. There is a figure of Mars on top , in the corner is the decoration with letter "L" (gammadia), usually used to strengthen the corners of shields, and on the right ther are the initials "AUG", referring to the Legio Augustus, Vindonissa Museum
Illustration from the manuscript of Vergilius Vaticanus, V century A.D. Two scutums are clearly visible