Lorica hamata or chainmail armour, was fashioned from small iron rings, with each ring passing through two other rings directly above and below it. Roman mail armour was made up of rows of solid rings, alternating with rows of rings that have their ends riveted together. This time consuming method of manufacture created an incredibly strong 'net' of iron rings that was extremely difficult to force open with fast-moving arrowheads or powerfully thrust spear-points.
Chainmail was certainly able to prevent deep cuts from slashing blades, as well as the penetration of spears and arrows; but the massive trauma inflicted by a powerful blow during an adrenaline-fuelled battle would easily pass through a thin layer of metal rings. A solid strike from a spatha, or a spear, could easily break ribs and crack collar-bones, whether chainmail was worn or not. Consequently, a padded garment [subarmalis] was worn beneath the armour.
Contrary to popular opinion, although heavy, this form of armour is very flexible. Mail shirts found at Caerleon in Wales, South Shields in England, Buch, Künzing and Bertoldsheim in Germany, and Dura Europus in Syria show a remarkable uniformity in the size of the iron rings used, with an empire-wide standard of 7mm external diameter and 1mm thickness. A number of these mail coats were found rolled up by their former owners.
Lorica squamata, or scale, was made up of small metal plates that were sewn onto a linen or leather backing. The plates were often bronze or brass, but iron scales are also known. Each scale was punctured with pairs of holes that enabled the manufacturer to sew the scales both to the backing fabric which acted as an additional subarmalis
Finds of scale from the 3rd century are as common as rings from chainmail. Bronze scale looks impressive and is not as badly affected by damp. In addition, the armour is easy to wear and much lighter than an equivalent-sized shirt of ringmail. Because the shirt is made rigid by the scales, it must have a full-length opening to allow the wearer to put it on. Once on, the scale shirt is fastened up with buckles. Most modern recreations place this vulnerable opening at the side, under the arm, where the seam cannot be exploited by an enemy thrust. Integral arms cannot be made into a suit of scale armour due to the inflexibility of the design, but sleeves of scale can be attached with buckles and straps most successfully.
Scale does have its drawbacks, which explains the historical survival of ringmail and scale together in the same army, the same legions, perhaps even in the same squads. On a practical level, threads can break when they get caught, scales can come off and gaps can appear in the armour. Where chainmail is durable and tough, yet prone to damp and rust, scale is light and comfortable, yet needs regular maintenance.
Lorica segmentata, the famous armour of the 1st Century Roman legionary, was made up of curved bands of iron joined together by buckles, and then hooked onto wide shoulder plates.
This armour continued use into the 3rd century, the column of Septimus Severus show legionaries wearing this type of protection. It was now worn alongside other types, the scale and chain, and it may have been up to the individual soldier what he wore.
Segmentata was harder to maintain with many small fittings that could break or fall off. Auxiliary soldiers probably never wore this type of armour.
The earlier style of lorica segmentata is known as Corbridge ('A' and 'B'), but in the 2nd century a slightly simpler style evolved, with fewer curved plates, presumably this version cost less, or was easier to maintain or manufacture. It is known by archaeologists as the Newstead type.
Lorica segmentata in the legions of AD 200 would have been both of the earlier Corbridge B type, and of the newer Newstead type.
Left. In this painting by Johnny Shumate a 3rdC legionary wears the Newstead segmentata and he carries a spatha and a curved rectangular scutum. Note the ring buckle belt with two bronze strap ends, the circular sword chape and the dagger, slung on his belt. He wears a Medieval-looking coif rather than a helmet, an innovation of this period.
By AD 100, and possibly earlier, leg protection was becoming popular amongst other ranks. In the 3rd century soldiers are shown on wall-paintings at Dura Europus wearing iron greaves, and a fine example of around the same date has been preserved from Künzing in Germany. Iron greaves used by the Roman army protected the shins, from ankle to knee. They were folded around the front and sides of the lower leg, and attached with straps of leather. Greaves were essential for the front-rank soldiers. Their shields were not big enough to protect shins unless the order was given for the frontline to kneel and ground its shields.
Fortunatus has iron greaves he made himself based on the Künzing model and found that even a fairly thin iron sheet can still protect the shins adequately from moderate trauma. After being cut to shape, the greave is bent down its centre giving a line of strength that faces forward. The greave is then gently and repeatedly bent to form a comfortable fit around the lower leg. Both upper and lower edges are 'turned' in order to prevent the edge of the greave digging into the skin. Padding is essential, and thick leg wraps or a padded layer of cloth wrapped or tied around the lower leg, serves this purpose well.
An innovation during the 3rd century are breastplates, small metal plate guards that protect the vulnerable upper chest. They may have been fastened onto the underlying chain or scale armour. Perhaps they acted as a closure device. Those found always come in two halves with a simple locking mechanism to connect them. All are decorated with classical figures or mythological beasts.