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Scuta (Roman Infantry Shield, ca. mid 3rd century AD) painted rawhide and wood

Here is a particularly fascinating historical object: an original Roman semi-cylindrical legionary shield (scutum) from Dura-Europos (a very strange Roman border city which requires its own post). Although pieces of other ancient Roman shields have been found, this is by far the finest and most complete example. Yet even this stunning shield has some deficiencies–it was found in thirteen flattened pieces which had to be reassembled, and it is missing its iron boss (a hardened round dome in the center used for ramming and for deflecting swords, spears, cavalry lances, and javelins). 

Even if the most important piece is gone, this shield demonstrates the construction of such protective devices. These large curved shields were made of steam curved layers of wood annealed together on top of each other in cross-grained patterns to be light yet resistant to the sharpest and hardest stabbing weapons. The edges were lined with metal to strengthen the against hacking attacks or shattering. Plus, in lieu of a boss (of which we have other examples) this shield still has the original legionary artwork in extremely fine condition. Shields were painted with different emblems so that men could swiftly recognize their units in the chaos of battle, however these designs always reflected the Roman iconography of victory. This example features an eagle with a laurel wreath, winged Victories, and a lion. Gorgons, bulls, boars, winged horses, and above all Zeus’ lightning bolts seem to have also been popular.

Probably a military historian would write at length about Roman armor, swords, ironwork, fortresses, roads, organization, ballistae, and goodness knows what else. Yet, to my eyes, this is the definitive piece of Roman military hardware. In order to be useful, a shield of this sort requires endless drilling with lots of other soldiers with the same sort of shield. Imagine going into a battle in the Roman-age world. There would be direct visceral carnage everywhere. Your opponents have war chariots, huge axes, enormous pikes and goodness knows what else and you would have…a curved piece of plywood and a very long iron knife? And yet with training, nerve, and discipline, each shield became an impervious scale of a giant armored monster made of men.

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