(photo by By David Friel – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3163149)
The Evolution of the Roman Shield: From Clipeus to Scutum
If you see an image of a typical Roman legionary, chances are you’ll see a soldier with a curved rectangular shield, the famous scutum. But the Roman infantry did not always employ such a shield, nor did they invent it. Rather, the scutum was an adaptation from the circular clipeus that was the weapon of choice in the early Roman Republic.
Until the 4th century BCE, Roman legionaries fought in a phalanx formation, similar to the formation used by Grecian hoplites. Like the hoplites, early Romans used a circular shield for protection, overlapping theirs with the shields of their line mates. But then they abandoned it. Why did the change come about? I try to explain it in my book The Noble Brute.
Fighting agains the mountain-dwelling Samnites, the Romans noticed that the Samnites employed smaller, more mobile groups when fighting in uneven terrain, similar to the maniple formations that the Romans soon adopted. The Samnites wielded curved oblong shields, the better to protect their bodies and to plant into the earth for a shield wall.
When the Romans moved from the phalanx to the more mobile maniple formation, they adopted the type of shield used by the Samnites. Based on descriptions by Polybius, Livy, and other ancient historians, the scutum likely went through numerous changes in size and composition, though retaining its curved rectangular shape.
The scutum was eventually replaced with other types of shields, such as the small, circular parma that was first deployed by the velites and cavalry. As with our modern armament, changes were constant, even though they were not always an improvement. But the scutum was the shield of choice as Rome moved from Republic to Empire, from regional power to world conqueror.