I've been reading Adrian Goldsworthy's wonderful The Fall of the West, as has Mary Beard who reviewed it for the Sunday Times here.
I will be blogging many aspects of the book, but the one that I wanted to start with is the question of what Roman soldiers wore, because Goldsworthy included amongst his illustrations the all too rarely used fresco from Dura Europas on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria. He also tells the story of the discovery of the fresco, and of the site thereafter, by British soldiers trying to dig a machine gun position in 1920.
Most peoples' idea of a Roman soldier, or at least a Roman commander, is some variation of this statue of Augustus excavated in the villa at Prima Porta owned by his wife Livia.
Romans did not wear trousers, and like the Greeks before them thought that it was a sign of great barbarity. The barbarian Persians covered their legs in trousers, as in the movie 300; the uncivilized Germans did the same. The civilized Greeks and Romans did not, according to axiom. Actually Roman military uniforms were constantly changing from the time Gaius Marius first standardised them at the end of the second century BC. At some point the uniform embraced trousers, which became part of standard clothing by the Byzantine period.
This fresco decorated a wall of the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods at Dura Europas, which was founded under the Seleucids, and became an outpost of Palmyra under the Romans. All four walls of the room showed scenes of sacrifice, this one a ceremony undertaken by the XXth Palmyrene Cohort of auxiliaries stationed in the town. Sacrifices were normal before battles, so military leaders had to be familiar with basic religious practices - which they also sometimes abused to their advantage.
Rome held Dura ['fort'] from AD 165 to 256 - winning it from the Parthians then losing it to the Sassanids. This particular army is known to have been permanently garrisoned in the city, and because of its destruction and thus the survival of a great deal of information about the soldiers, we can date the fresco pretty accurately to circa AD 238.
The standard prominently painted in the center identifies the troops, and painted labels further clarify who they were: the Tribune Julius Terentius, named in Latin, and the priest Themes son of Mokimos, named in Greek.
The gods, filling the left hand of the scene, can be identified by their halos (which were not a Christian innovation). The three standing figures in the upper register are either gods, and so would include Mars and a local variant of Baal as warrior; or, as Goldsworthy notes is equally possible, the Three Emperors that briefly reigned together in 238 (Balbinus, Pupienus and Gordian III). The two seated women are the Tyche or personifications of Dura and Palmyra as her mother-city.
This detail shows the trousers clearly (the legs are much darker than the skin on the faces or hands), as well as closed toed shoes or boots. The higher ranked officers have purple or deep red stripes on the sleeves of their tunics. They also have ochre tunics, except for Terentius, who wears a longer fringed white cloak. All but one of the Romans has brown hair, showing that blonds were the exception in that part of the world, and most have the beards which became popular from Hadrian onwards.
Terentius probably died in April 239, as comemmorated by a memorial by his wife as well as a gaffito.
This image comes from a highly illustrated edition of Virgil known as the Vergilius Romanus, which dates from the 5th century (now in the Vatican). The uniforms of the soldiers - including trousers and fish-scale armor - reflect the period of its creation rather more than that of Augustus. The codex also includes a scene depicting dining, which was still practiced reclining at the time. [Photo]
This image shows a panel from a floor mosaic in a villa in Argos, Greece, depicting the seasons, dating to circa AD 500. April on the right is shown holding a lamb, and March on the left is represented by a soldier. The soldier's costume is deliberately Classicising and therefore an anachronism; we see this in military representations from the Hellenistic period onwards, with martial monuments erected and decorated with equipment no longer in use. Another panel from this floor provides our first evidence for falconry. [Photo]
The Fall Of The West: The Death Of The Roman Superpower: The Long, Slow Death of the Roman Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy - Amazon.co.uk
How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy - Amazon.com