Category Archives: Cohort VII Scutum Decoris

The Legionary Marching Pack

In 107 BC, General Gaius Marius instituted a group of military reforms, such as the formation of a standing army, the standardization of legionary training and equipment, and the reorganization of the legions. This final reform included reducing the baggage train by having each legionary carry their own supplies and a few days worth of rations (Wikipedia contributors, “Marian reforms”). Matyszak put the average weight of a marching pack at a bit less than 60 pounds (66).

Roman soldiers with marching packs. From the cast of Trajan's column in the Victoria and Albert museum, London. Picture by "Gaius Cornelius". Via

Instead of being directly carried like the modern backpack, the marching pack was strapped to a cross-shaped pole called a furca (Matyszak, 67). I created my furca out of wooden dowels based on measurements from the Legio XX Online Handbook: a 4 foot tall wooden pole with a 20 inch crossbar secured about 3 inches from the top of the pole (“Marching Pack”). It is unclear from the images on Trajan’s Column how the bars were secured, so the reenactment Handbook suggested bolting or nailing the crossbar to the pole, and wrapping the joint with a leather or rawhide thong. I was afraid of splitting the wood and did not have access to good quality leather or rawhide, so I secured the crossbar by wrapping it with a nylon rope that was strong enough to hold the joint.

When not being worn, the legionary’s cloak could be rolled and tied to the furca, or held in a bag attached to the crossbar. One type of cloak was the sagum, a rectangular blanket-sized cloth that would have doubled as the legionary’s bedroll (“Cloak”). Saga were used from the time of the Roman Republic to the Dominate (Bishop & Coulston, 68, 111, 184, 224). The cloaks would have been made of wool soaked in lanolin oils to keep it waterproofed (Matyszak, 67), and it would have likely been yellow brown in color because the undyed wool may have kept more of the natural oils from the wool (Sumner, “Did an Ordinary…”). I used dark red cotton corduroy to make the sagum because I found a large stretch for cheap, and because it was a heavy fabric that could approximate the weight of wool. Sagums would be pinned at the shoulder or throat with a fibula, a brooch or pin that was usually bronze, but occassionaly iron, silver, or gold (“Cloak”). For my fibula, I used a large safety pin, the design of which wasn’t far from some Roman fibulae. The dimensions I used were approximately 2.70 m (8 ft 10 in) long by 1.40 m (4 ft 7 in) wide, the measurements of an existing cloak from Israel (Sumner, “Sagum”).

The sagum was very long; the extra length could be flipped to the back to get out of the way or thrown over the head to protect against the elements.

On Trajan’s Column, a satchel is depicted with diagonal reinforcements. I used leftover corduroy from the sagum to create a non-reinforced satchel following the dimensions given by the Legio XX Handbook, about 18 inches wide by 12 inches tall (“Marching Pack”). The satchel would usually be leather, and might carry a variety of items.

The legionary’s mess kit would have consisted of his patera, a bowl about 7 inches in diameter that could be used as a bowl, cup, and cooking pot (Matyszak, 67). I used a small saucepan and covered the plastic handle with duct tape to imitate metal, though they would have been made of bronze, not silvery metals (Matyszak, 67). The Legio XX Online Handbook additionally mentioned a bronze cookpot or situla, which I represented by a duct-tape covered cookie tin (“Mess Gear”). I included a wooden stirring spoon as a stand-in for an eating spoon, which would be iron, bronze, wood, bone, or horn (“Mess Gear”).

Each soldier was supposed to carry three days worth of rations (6-8 lbs of food) and water (“Marching Pack”). Rations that would be carried on a march would include preserved food, such as bucellatum (a type of hardtack), bacon, salted meat, flour, dried lentils, etc. I sewed a small pouch for rations out of a light cotton fabric and created a drawstring using the suede lace that was too weak to hold anything else in my recreation. In this I stuffed some beef jerky and homemade bucellatum, using a recipe I found on the Legio XX reenactment site (“Mess Gear”). The way which the legionaries would carry water is much more controversial. Some iron or ceramic flasks have been found, but it is unclear if they were used as canteens (“Mess Gear”). Reenactors have tried many other solutions, from leather waterskins to animal bladders (which don’t work well because they become brittle when they dry out) (“Waterskins”). I used a modern bota bag to represent a leather waterskin.

Bucellatum and dried meat - yummy!

I included mostly the basics of what a legionary would carry. They would also carry personal items such as shaving gear, a small knife, extra clothes, and so on. Vindolanda Tablet 346 is a letter (perhaps accompanying a package) telling the recipient that he was sent two pairs of socks, four pairs of sandals, and two pairs of underpants (Tab. Vindol. II 346). Though Vindolanda was a garrison, if the legionary were to go anywhere, he would have to take those extra items in his pack. The soldiers might also carry souvenirs if they traveled, or booty distributed by the commander after a battle or capturing a city (Sage, 209).

"Nice hobo pack," my friend told me. I'd advise anyone who'd like to keep their life to refrain from saying that to a real legionary.

Works Cited

Bishop, M.C. and Coulston, J.C.N. Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome. 2nd ed. Oxford: Osbow Books, 2006. Print.

“Cloak.” Legio XX Online Handbook. Legio XX: The Imperial Roman Twentieth Legion. 15 Oct. 2003. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.

“Marching Pack.” Legio XX Online Handbook. Legio XX: The Imperial Roman Twentieth Legion. 2 Dec. 2006. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.

Matyszak, Philip. Legionary: A Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009. Print.

“Mess Gear.” Legio XX Online Handbook. Legio XX: The Imperial Roman Twentieth Legion. 2 Jan. 2009. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.

Sage, Michael M. The Republican Roman Army: A Sourcebook. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Sumner, Graham. “Did an Ordinary Roman Soldier Wear a Cape.” 12 Aug. 2006. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

Sumner, Graham. “Sagum.” 24 Apr. 2006. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

Tab. Vindol. II 346. Vindolanda Tablets Online.   Script, Image and the Culture of Writing in the Ancient World, Oxford University. Web. 8 Apr. 2012.

“Waterskins.” 22 Jan. 2012. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Wikipedia contributors. “Marian reforms.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Apr. 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris, Final Projects - Cohort VII

Final Project- Ballista

Before the appearance of the ballista and other similar machines, the power of a weapon was limited to the frame of itself. Around 350 BC, the technology of a torsion powered machine was born (Nossov 136) Torsion machines uses ropes or animal cords tightly wound with a wooden arm in the middle to fire projectiles. By twisting the rope, these people were able to achieve greater power from their weapons and it was less likely to break their machines, just the ropes.

Although the original appearance of ballistae was around 350 BC, it wasn’t until roughly 334 BC that they started being widely used. Alexander was the first to start using these machines, which fired large arrows usually to take out soldiers, not structures (Nossov 136). As time progressed, they were adapted to throw stones. This meant the ballista was equipped with a larger frame and also metal parts began to be integrated into the construction to support the strain (Wikipedia 2012). With the capability of throwing stones, they were now able to take out structures rather than mainly soldiers. There is a wide variety of the calibers of stones used, each having its own purpose. The stones which were thrown ranged from 10 pounds up to 85 pounds; with the lighter stones being used primarily for defense and the heavier stones being used for offense (Nossov 138).

The ballista was a fairly simple weapon for the average soldier to operate; it worked similarly to a crossbow. Soldiers pulled levers at the rear of the machine to retract the pusher through a series of ratchets. All the energy was stored in the ropes, which carried a much higher potential energy than could have possibly been stored in

the wooden throwing arms. Due to this ratcheting system, it could be ready to fire in a moments notice. This weapon was highly accurate and there have been multiple accounts of skilled ballista shooters being able to take out enemy soldiers from a few hundred yards (Wikipedia 2012). Although they were highly accurate, they

Scene 40, Carroballistae. Used with permission, Copyright Peter Rockwell.

weren’t able to shoot very large projectiles and this eventually became the job of newly developed catapults (Nossov 150).

In this early version of a ballista, it can still be seen how they were used to fire arrows. These machines were relatively small, but that made it much easier to carry from place to place. As these weapons grew with new engineering techniques, they became more complex and had to be built more durably. As a result, metal was added to these machines, but this also made transportation more difficult. This required that they needed to be disassembled and reassembled at the site of war.

Works Cited

E. Schramm: Die antiken Geschütze der Saalburg. (Berlin 1918), S. 41 Abb. 14, 42 Abb. 15

Gurstelle, W. (2001). Backyard ballistics. (pp. 91-101). Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Gurstelle, W. (2004). The art of the catapult. (pp. 60-69). Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Nossov, K. (2005). Ancient and medieval siege weapons. (p. 136, 138, 150). Guilford: The Lyons Press.

Rockwell, P. (Photographer). (1999). Carroballistae. [Print Photo]. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2012, April 08). Ballista. Retrieved from


Leave a comment

Filed under Class Stuff, Cohort VII Scutum Decoris, Final Projects - Cohort VII, Uncategorized

The Knight’s Charger

The quintessential knight is rarely a solo character; indeed, he is generally depicted riding his great steed.

“David defeats the Philistines.” Used with permission. Via

Horses in the Middle Ages were not like the genetic breeds we have today, instead they were characterized by their physical attributes or what they were used for (“Horses in the Middle Ages”). The main types of horses used by knights in war were the destrier, courser, and rouncy. Destriers, large and strong horses, and the lighter coursers, were favored for use in battle (Prestwich, Knight, 45). Poorer knights, squires, and men-at-arms would use the rouncey, an all-purpose horse used for riding, battle, or as pack horses (“Horses in the Middle Ages”).

The horse was likely the most expensive piece of equipment in the knight’s inventory (Prestwich, “Miles”, 212). Prices of horses ranged considerably; Prestwich suggests that the value of a horse may have been determined by more than quality, the social rank and wealth of the owner may have also contributed to the value (“Miles”, 211). Generally, destriers tended to be more expensive than other horses – one estimate is seven times that of a normal horse (“Horses in the Middle Ages”).

Knights were skilled at fighting on the ground as well as on their mounts, and their tactics varied depending on time and the situation. Sidnell suggests that knights would dismount to boost the morale of the infantrymen, as well as when the terrain made riding ineffective (321). When mounted, the horses would sometimes fight each other, and destriers might have been trained to bite and kick their enemies. This may be due to the fact that stallions were most commonly used as war horses in Europe (“Horses in the Middle Ages”).

The armor worn by horses was called barding, and it consisted of many pieces. Depending on the time and cost of material, the various pieces of barding would be made of plates, chainmail, or leather worn over a layer of padding. Often, the armor would be covered with stretches of cloth called caparisons (“Barding”), pattered with the insignia of the knight to distinguish them in battle (Prestwich, Knight, 46).

In battle, horses needed to be obedient and maneuverable, so training was very important (“History of Dressage”). Tournaments were used for training the horses to get used to the noise and frenzy of battle (“Horses in the Middle Ages”).


Works Cited

“David defeats the Philistines.” Maciejowski Bible. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Medieval Tymes. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

“History of Dressage.” United States Dressage Federation. n.p, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Prestwich, Michael. Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s Unofficial Manual. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. Print

Prestwich, Michael. “Miles in Armis Strenuus: The Knight at War.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5 (1995): 201-220. Print.

Sidnell, Philip. Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006. Print.

Wikipedia contributors. “Barding.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Wikipedia contributors. “Horses in the Middle Ages.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris

Longbows to Crossbows

At the beginning of the medieval era, the ranged weapon of choice was the longbow due to the power and great number of shots per minute that could be achieved by skilled archers. As time progressed, crossbows started to become favored because of their ease and enormous force that could be produced from the weapon.

The longbow was an easy weapon to produce; it was made from a single piece of wood made in the shape of a D. The height of the bow was similar to the archer using it. These men needed to be strong because longbows designed for war required 200 pounds of force to draw the string back to their chin. (Castle & Manorhouses 2010) Accuracy wasn’t an easy feat for these men to achieve either, it required many years of practice. The majority of these archer started practicing when they were young, so when they were older, they were able to easily take out their targets.

As the crossbow was introduced into the armies, it became a widely used weapon. It enabled common men with the ability of shooting very accurately with a large amount of power. (Claydon 1993) Also they had the great advantage of being able to teach new recruits how to properly use a crossbow within weeks instead of taking a lifetime to perfect the art of the longbow.  Due to the drawing system on crossbows, they were able to pull the string farther back and out shoot a longbow. The first type of crossbow had a notch at the end the archer was able to stick his foot in and push to draw the string back. (Wikipedia 2012) This type did allow the user to draw a considerable amount of power from the crossbow, but users still wanted more power and range; therefore, new drawing mechanisms came about. As time progressed, a windlass system and a crank system were introduced to the crossbow. The windlass allowed the user to turn a mechanism similar to a bicycle wheel, which then drew the string back; while the crank system used a handle to slowly pull the string back through a series of ratchets. Although users were able to gain a considerable amount of power through these devices, it was also extremely time consuming. (Claydon 1993) This did give the user an advantage though because once the bow was drawn, it was locked in place. They could then be ready to fire in a moments notice by simply pulling a steel trigger to release the string.

In the picture to the right, it is shown how easily a crossbow could be used by a common infantryman. It required a small amount of effort to produce a high powered shot able to piece the armor of knights. It also greatly increased the accuracy of these men because it used sights similar to that of a gun; which wasn’t an option with a longbow.

Works Cited

Castle & Manorhouses. (2010). Medieval warfare. Retrieved from

Claydon, S. M. (1993). A bolt from the blue. Medicine, Science, and the Law, 33(4), 349-350.

Crossbow. In (2012). Medieval Europe Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Gun Powder Ma. (Producer). (2009). The martyrdom of st. sebastian. [Web Photo]. Retrieved from

Verbruggen, J. F. (1997). The art of warfare in western europe during the middle ages. (2 ed.). Boydell & Brewer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris

Cohort VII – Final Project Discussion

Greetings fellow members of Cohort VII Scutum Decoris! Our current suggestion for a final project we can do as a group is to have a Legionary vs. Knight Battle. This would consist of the following parts:

1. An actor/fighter to dress up and fight as a Knight/Legionary. They would research the battle techniques as well as meet with the other fighter for practice.

2. A costume designer. They would research and make a replica costume for their Legionary/Knight.

3. A weapon designer. They would research and create replica weapons for their Legionary/Knight.

Also, depending on the amount of work needed for these three positions, perhaps there might be overlap. For example, the weapon designer might also create the accessories if the costume designer had too much other work.

Do you have any other suggestions? Any other ways to split up the work?  Anything important I missed?


Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris, Final Projects - Cohort VII

Trajan’s Column: Bridge

Bridges have always been something that many civilizations have had trouble with. What with the bridges having being able to withstand weather, floods, and also being strong enough to hold up to travelers and an army. The Romans were given the credit of having the “first and longest lasting bridges built” (Wikipedia) in first and second century AD. As shown in the below picture, the Romans are able to put a lot of weight on their bridges that are even still up today.

File:Roman bridge.jpg

Before the Romans many of the past civilizations had been trying to a form of cement, which the Romans used as well, but they were the ones who had thought of making arches which opened up a whole new world of bridge making. The Romans got much of their engineering from the Etruscans and also the Persians (Jays History) but learning to use a keystone arch for their bridges had been a new thought process entirely. It was during the reign of Trajan, a Roman emperor, that the new design of bridges were built. “Some of the most impressive Roman bridges are over ravines. A fine surviving example, built for Trajan in AD 105, spans the Tagus in Spain, at Alcántara. Its two massive central arches, 110 feet wide and 210 feet above the normal level of the river, are made of uncemented granite. Each wedge-shaped block weighs 8 tons.” (History net)

The bridges that were created essentially had made traveling and new towns because people could have easier access. “Allowing the river to be crossed at any time of the year, the bridge was an important factor of development for the town, but it was also necessary and useful for the Pax Romana: here there were hot springs visited by a lot of people; in the region there were mines with precious metals, whose product was taken to Rome; across the bridge passed the important Roman road of Braga to Astorga, with a lot of traffic; and lastly here was quartered a numerous detachment of legionnaires of the Roman army.” (Wikipedia)

The bridges that the Romans had created were the first steps into making the idea of a unified world. Not to mention that bridges have changed the architecture of everything. The picture of the bridge in the Trajan’s column shows how much without the bridges, the Romans couldn’t get across the Danube, and it has changed the outcome of the world. (Peter Rockwell, STOA)

Works Citied:

Rockwell, P.  Bridge. Retrieved March 8, 2012 from

Leave a comment

Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris

Dacian Prisoners

During the reign of Trajan over the Roman Empire, the Romans experienced a great amount of resistance from the kingdom of Dacia. As a result, the Roman leader, Trajan, prepared his forces to fight against the forced of the Dacian Empire led by Decebalus. Battle began between these two nations in 101 A.D. and lasted until roughly 106 A.D. over the period of two wars (Schmitz 7-8). These wars took place on the Dacian’s land, which was in their favor, but they ultimately ended up losing although they dealt many devastating blows to the Roman forces.

As the wars waged on between these two forces, the Romans took many captives and the number of slaves only increased once they claimed victory in the war. The prisoners were treated poorly and expected to complete many tasks for the Romans. The slaves could be assigned any number of tasks including stone work, although they were given low quality tools to work with (Petrie 1917). Although the prisoners provided large amounts of labor for the Romans, they were also used to show a symbol of status and wealth among the Romans. Along with the gold and silver, the servants received from the war were considered to be a part of the goods gained for the Roman Empire. They were displayed in front of the emperor, along with other treasure, as a part of celebration for the Roman army (Cracknell 2010).

75.Subjugation of the Dacians. Used by permission. Copyright Peter Rockwell

As the picture demonstrates, the slaves were brought before the king not only to be shown off, but also to pledge their allegiance to the kingdom. It was important for the slaves to know that they were now a part of the Roman culture and under its influence for the remainder of their existence.


Works Cited

Cracknell, N. (2010, April). Trajan’s forum: A triumphal reading. Retrieved from

Petrie, W. (1917). 104. links of north and south. Man, 17(Oct), 158-162.

Piperno, R., & Moore, R. (n.d.). Two roman wars. Retrieved from

Rockwell, P. (1999). Subjugation of the Dacians.Trajan’s Column, The McMaster Trajan Project. Photograph retrieved from

Schmitz, M. (2005). The Dacian Threat. 101-106 A.D. Caeros, 7-8


Leave a comment

Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris

The Roman Signum

Roman Legions carried many different standards. One of the most recognizable is the signum, the decorated spear-like pole. As depicted on Trajan’s column, the standards of Legio I Minervia consisted of a wreathed open-hand symbol (manus) on top of the pole, a crossbar underneath with a strip of leather hanging from either end, and a series of discs below the crossbar. Archaeologists have found signa of other types, topped with spear heads instead of the manus, and with wreaths between the discs (Kraeling). These wreaths, as well as the one on the manus, are believed to be a symbol of an award or honor given to the standard’s unit (“Signum”).

Scene 48. Standards of Legio I Minervia. Used with permission. Copyright Peter Rockwell. Via

Another set of standards on Trajan’s Column have a very different design. In between the discs are ambiguous rectangles that protrude from the column almost as if they are supposed to be representations of short cylinders. The discs themselves, instead of being plain-surfaced, have images on them. The top image is of an eagle, but the ones below almost look like a portrait. Legions in the Roman Empire would each have an image of the Emperor, but this would have been one standard only in the first cohort of the legion (“The Roman Standards”). No sources clarify whether these portraits (if that is what they are) are of the Emperor Trajan, or are other important figures or deities.

Scene 53. Roman military standards. Used with permission. Copyright Peter Rockwell. Via

Roman signa were very important to the legionaries. They represented the honor of their unit and legion, and were used in religious festivals and other ceremonies. When pitching camp, the standards were staked into the ground before anything else (“The Roman Standards”). Most importantly, they were used in battle as rallying points and signals for different tactical maneuvers (Kraeling).


Works Cited

“Signum (Military Standard).” Legion XXIV Media Atlantia. Feb. 2010. n.p., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2012. <;

“The Roman Standards.” Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. 19 July 2008. n.p., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2012. <;

Kraeling, Carl H. “The Episode of the Roman Standards at Jerusalem.” The Harvard Theological Review 35.4 (1970): 263-289. Print.

Rockwell, Peter. Photo of Roman military standards on Trajan’s Column. n.d. The Stoa Consortium. Web. 8 Mar. 2012.

Rockwell, Peter. Photo of Standards of Legio I Minervia on Trajan’s Column. n.d. The Stoa Consortium. Web. 8 Mar. 2012.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris



Legate being saluted

The man in charge of the Roman Legions.

The role of Legatus was considered the highest rank that a legionary could strive to gain, while then it was still usually granted to a senator more often than a soldier who worked his way up through the ranks.

The Legatus was in charge of overall military strategy and campaigning. The Legatus would need to lean heavily on the other staff officers that would be surrounded by him, the business of day-to-day operations was run by these officers.

There were a few different “ranks” of Legatus in the Roman Army. There were Legatus in each province, in charge of their own regional legion, who would protect regional interests unless called upon by the Empire to go to battle, which was a common occurrence in the Roman times. (Milner)

One of the most important roles of the Legatus was to know when to press war upon his foes, and when it was time to hold back. In many cases the wisest Legate would listen to the senior “non-commissioned” soldiers who would almost always have the truest feel for what the soldiers were feeling and whether pushing the fight was wise. Vegetius was quoted, via translation, as saying that :

One should find out how soldiers are feeling before battle. Explore carefully how soldiers are feeling on the actual day they are going to fight. For confidence or fear may be discerned from their facial expression, language, gait and gestures. Do not be fully confident if it is the recruits who want battle, for was is sweet to the inexperienced. You will know to postpone it if the experienced warriors are afraid of fighting. An army gains courage and fighting spirits from advice and encouragement from their general, especially if they are given such an account of the coming battle as leads them to believe they will easily win a victory. (Keppie)

One of the largest dangers of the rank of Legatus is that they were subject to the displeasure of the Emperor. If a Legate has a bad campaign, they may not be long for the rank.

Works Cited

Keppie, Lawrence. The Making of the Roman Army: From republic ot empire. Lawrence: University of Oklahoma press, 1984. Print.

Milner, N.P. Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1993. Print.



Leave a comment

Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris

Legionary Life : Medicine

My induction into the role of medicus for cohort VII Scutum Decoris seemed to me to be a bit slapdash. After all, before joining the Legion I had no formal medical training. However, it was possible for a recruit  “who had demonstrated their capabilities for wound dressing and a primitive surgery, but who were not trained physicians” to fill the role of medicus. These green recruits “Probably…learned their medicine from the ‘senior’ medici present in the legion.” (Scarborough) As “Trained physicians were rare,” lack of formal instruction was hardly a deal-breaker. “Success and experience were the main, and in most cases the only, qualifications” for a legionary medicus. (Nutton)

A trained doctor coming into the legions could expect a few perks, but he was still under the rule of his commanders. “By taking the military oath he became a soldier, a miles-and until he reached the rank of centurion he was still technically a miles -his service was counted in stipendia, and he was bound by military law.” However, since he was certainly more useful alive than dead, “his duties [didn’t] necessarily include fighting.” He’d be counted as a ‘non-combattant’ in the legion and after his service could retire “into the select group of civilian doctors who possess immunity from certain taxes and civic duties” (Nutton)

Medici used tools like these to perform surgery on wounded soldiers

Many think of ancient Roman medicine as the kind of clueless bumbling used in the Dark Ages in Europe, when really they were leaps and bounds ahead of the haphazard theories of the four humors and the use of leeches and bloodletting.

Varro’s warning against building homes near swamps, which he stated bred “minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases” demonstrates that Romans had an understanding of germs centuries before blundering medieval doctors attempted to cure the Black Death by “applying a warm poultice of butter, onion and garlic.” (Alchin) Long before the doctors of the middle ages were making Plague Victim Scampi, Roman medici had a working knowledge of “painkillers such as opium and scopolamine,” and knew how to disinfect wounds with “acetum – the acid in vinegar.” (Wikipedia contributors)

Their methods may seem antiquated and a bit superstitious, but Roman medici knew more than we give them credit for. Herbal medicine can sound like hokum, but right alongside the religious plant sage, Romans used fennel for its calming properties. Modern doctors are now exploring the use of fennel as a potential treatment for hypertension. And that new fad of taking garlic supplements for heart health? Not so new; Romans used it for the exact same thing. (Wikipedia contributors)

No one can say how much a good Roman medicus could have done during outbreaks of the Black Death, or the Spanish Flu epidemic, or even against the common cold. We will never be able to measure exactly how, but the loss of Roman medical knowledge irrevocably changed the shape of our history far beyond the field of medicine.



Alchin, L.K.. “Medicine in the Middle Ages.” N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb 2012.


Nutton, Vivian. “Medicine and the Roman army: a further reconsideration.” Medical History. 13.3 (1969): 260-270. Web. 29 Feb. 2012.


Scarborough, John. “Roman medicine and the legions: a reconsideration.” Medical History. 12.3 (1968): 254–261. Web. 29 Feb. 2012.


Varro, Marcus Terentius. De Re Rustica. 1. Loeb Classical Library, 1934. 211. Web.*.html


Wikipedia contributors. “Medicine in ancient Rome.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 feb 2012. Web. 26 Feb 2012.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cohort VII Scutum Decoris, Uncategorized