Monday, August 2, 2021

Roman military belts: Symbols of social status and Auctoritas

While browsing the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, I saw this fragmentary figurine of a Roman soldier from the 3rd century CE found in Naukratis, Egypt by legendary archaeologist Flinders Petrie.  Looking at it I noticed the knotted sash just above the waist and realized this is not just any soldier but a senior officer.

The plated military balteus was not worn with a muscled cuirass.  Instead senior officers wore a fabric belt or sash with fringed ends, a traditional distinction of command worn since the Hellenistic period.

The balteus, also known as the cingulum militare from the 3rd century CE onwards, worn by all legionaries, was often elaborate, too, though.  

"The narrator of Apuleius’ satirical novel ‘The Golden Ass’ describes a man as being recognisably “miles elegione” (a soldier and legionary) and he also tells us how he recognized this: Through his “habitus atque habitude” (dress and manner)," points out archaeologist Stefanie Hoss.  "This and other writings in a similar vein make it quite obvious that soldiers were easily recognizable, even when they were not wearing full armour."

"In Rome, a man’s dress and his social cultural and political identity in Roman society were directly connected. The toga was both the prerogative and the iconic symbol of the Roman male citizen.  In a similar way, other sartorial choices spoke clearly of the status and station in life of the wearer. What then, was the distinguishing dress of the Roman soldier? We know that in Apuleius’ time unarmoured soldiers usually wore a belted tunica, nailed sandals and a long, heavy cloak, fixed on the right shoulder with a fibula. Neither the tunica nor the cloak seem to have differed much from average well-off civilian clothing. The truly distinguishing factor of the military dress were the sandals (caligae) and the military belt."

"It [the military belt] became invested with meaning to such an extent that taking away the military belt of a soldier in public for hours or days was a humiliation used as a dsciplinary measure by their superiors. Taking away the military belt permanently after a capitulation or during a dishonourable discharge from the army seems also to have been practised. The significance of the belt as a symbol of ‘being a soldier’ continued well into the late empire as is demonstrated by the symbolic act of Christian soldier-saints openly refusing to remain in the army by throwing off their military belt in public." 

"The military belt of the Roman soldier can therefore be defined as a symbolic object, both an article of clothing and a piece of military equipment, setting the soldier apart from civilian men and marking him as a "miles."

Hoss tells us the belt was decorated with "elaborate buckles, metal plates, strap-ends and other attachments, which made it heavy, eye-catching and "jingly". 

"Together with the crunch of hob-nailed sandals, the jingling of the metal belt pieces must have given soldiers a distinctive ‘sound’, announcing their presence," she observes.

I found it interesting that experimental archaeology indicates the heaviness of the military belt produced a swaggering, wide-legged manner of standing and walking. It also seemed to hinder running!

Mosaics and wall paintings also depict the military belt as red indicating they were often dyed.

"Most of the metal parts of the belt were made from copper alloys," Hoss observes. "Some were made from silver, gold or ivory, which were more expensive than copper alloys, while the pieces in bone and iron can be seen as cheaper versions. Especially in the 1st century CE, belt pieces were regularly tinned or silvered ,later it is more of an exception. "

"On the whole, the metal belt pieces were made with two different techniques, casting (lost mould or two-part mould) or embossing, or a combination of both. Ivory or bone would be simply cut. The surface of the metal plates could then be further decorated by engraving and cutting or by using niello or enamel decorations."

"The military belt of the ‘typical’ infantryman during the pre-Flavian 1st century consisted of two rather narrow belts worn crossing at mid-body, ‘cowboy-fashion’...Except for centurions and standard-bearers, the soldier wore one sidearm on each belt: his short sword on the right hip and a dagger on the left."

Hoss reports that experimental archaeology has indicated that the "apron" of leather straps (baltea) with decorated studs (bullae), supposedly designed to protect the groin of the soldier, proved to be more of a risk to the groin during violent movement like running. So researchers propose that it was merely a mark of status that maximized the characteristic jingling. 

I've always considered the Romans to be quite practical, especially when it comes to their military prowess. But Hoss points out that the "apron" disappears by the Antonine Period so perhaps the archaeologists are correct in this assumption.

Hoss goes into great detail about the evolution of belt decoration over the centuries and how iconography changed based on the cultural influences the Romans encountered in their empirical expansion. Although belt decoration changed across the centuries and provided the best opportunity for a soldier to express his individualism, Hoss says the archaeological record provides evidence that there was a surprising degree of homogeneity in belt decoration across the Roman empire as a whole from Hadrian's Wall in the west to Dura Europos in the east.

"According to a theory developed by Pierre Bourdieu, “[taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place’, guiding the occupants of a given […] social space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position”, Hoss observes. "In Bourdieu’s theory, symbolic capital (e.g. prestige, honour) is a crucial source of power, enabling the holder to exercise symbolic violence over non-holders. To attain this symbolic power, one must be able to conform to certain social expectations (the ‘right’ manner of speaking, walking, eating, dressing, etc.). While Bourdieu explored how parents would teach their children to conform to these expectations, it seems convincing that similar mechanisms take place in other social groups than the family. Tight-knit hierarchical groups like army units also constitute a group in which a certain set of rules is passed from a group of older and/or higher ranking men to a group of younger men. This set of rules naturally includes the ‘technical’ knowledge of the job: knowledge of arms, warfare, camp building and other necessities of army life, but it also includes ‘the right way’ of walking, talking, eating, dressing, etc. In a outwardly traditional society as the Roman, the older and/or higher ranking soldiers would ‘set the tone’ in their unit, establishing which fashions were acceptable and which were not, the verdict then being ‘executed’ by peer pressure. The surprising ‘uniformity’ of Roman military belts was thus not forced on the soldiers from above, but rather a product of their own desire for conformity.

Hoss' full article is available here:

Terracotta figurine of a Roman soldier, 3rd century CE, from Naukratis, Egypt, now in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, courtesy of the museum.

A bronze statue of Gaius Julius Caesar beside the Via Foro Imperiali in front of the Forum Julia that I photographed in Rome, Italy. Notice the command sash knotted just above his waist.

Armored statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian, 2nd century CE, with the fringed command sash, at the Antalya Archeological Museum , courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Wolfgang Sauber.

Roman relief depicting two baltei criss-crossed in the "cowboy" fashion, pre-Flavian 1st century CE. Image courtesy of Stephanie Hoss.

Modern reconstruction of lorica squamata with military belt at the 2013 Cricău Festival courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Saturnian.

Modern reconstruction of lorica segmentata with military belt by LEGIO XXX ULPIA TRAIANA VICTRIX ONLUS courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marten253.

Historical reenactor wearing Lorica Hamata armor with military belt courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Greatbeagle.

Detail of a display depicting a Roman centurion wearing a plated military belt at the exhibition "Romans on the Limes" courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor RömerWelt

Hardware from an ancient Roman military belt from Lower Bavaria, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Wolfgang Sauber.

Sketches of recovered decorations from Roman military belts across the centuries courtesy of Stephanie Hoss.

Bronze plates from a Roman balteus at the National Museum of Denmark, image courtesy of the museum and Wikimedia Commons.

Closeup of a bronze plate from a Roman balteus at the National Museum of Denmark, image courtesy of the museum and Wikimedia Commons.

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