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The War Mask of the Roman Cavalry

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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When we hear the word “war mask”, an armored samurai warrior will come in mind. The Men-yoroi, as what his mask was called, could be made of iron or leather, and coated with lacquer. It protected his face and secured his helmet, plus the demonic features could intimidate his hapless victims crossing his path.

But war masks weren’t exclusive to the samurai.

The use of protective mask, carved with human or demonic features could be found in various warrior cultures or ancient armed forces. And this includes a well-trained fighting force that became crucial for the spread of an empire. The Roman Cavalry.

For many people, war masks aren’t associated with the legion. Often times a soldier clad in red tunic, covered in segmented plate armor and armed with short sword, shield and spear is how people defined the Roman armed forces. Times changed though, and the Roman Legion would eventually march in the battle clad in mail. But in the case of the cavalry, a shiny mask bearing cold expression was sometimes worn both in sporting events, or in the actual battle.

The Roman Cavalry

Reenactors dressed as Roman cavalrymen.

Reenactors dressed as Roman cavalrymen.

The primary strength of the Roman army was its infantry. But like many of the effective fighting forces of ancient times, the Roman army also boasted their own mounted soldiers. When facing the enemy, the Roman Cavalry would go for the opposing mounted units first. They will then attack in many directions to disrupt the enemy line, and to confuse their commander. In the Late Roman Empire, skirmishes were done by mounted archers and light cavalrymen, while the heavy cavalrymen positioned themselves in the wings of the infantry formation.

For equipment, they wore helmets, armors (mail or scales) and greaves. They wielded weapons like the spatha, (a longer version of the short infantry gladius), lances and throwing spears. And going back to their headgear, the helmets were a variation of Corinthian type. And together with their helmets, the soldiers also wore something else in their heads.

A mounted soldier with a fully covered face was both impressive and frightening. I mean the mail cover of the cataphracts’ faces not only protects, but also dehumanizes the charging warrior. And somehow humans have a natural tendency to be frightened of covered faces. The Roman cavalrymen might have also worn masks for protection, but most of the time, their masks were for sporting purpose

The Roman Cavalry Mask

Ribchester Helmet

Ribchester Helmet

In sporting events, one must look impressive enough to catch attention. And when the Roman cavalry attended a ritualized game, they wore ornate armors and decorated helmets complete with shiny masks. The Roman writer Arrian gave descriptions of these flamboyant horsemen in his detailed record of Hippika Gymnasia, a Roman Cavalry game:

The horsemen enter [the parade ground] fully armed, and those of high rank or superior in horsemanship wear gilded helmets of iron or bronze to draw the attention of the spectators. Unlike the helmets made for active service, these do not cover the head and cheeks only but are made to fit all round the faces of the riders with apertures for the eyes . . . From the helmets hang yellow plumes, a matter of décor as much as utility. As the horses move forward, the slightest breeze adds to the beauty of these plumes. They carry oblong shields of a lighter type than those used in action, since both agility and smart turnout are the objects of the exercise and they improve the appearance of their shields by embellishment. Instead of breastplates the horsemen wear close-fitting Cimmerian tunics [leather jerkins] embroidered with scarlet, red or blue and other colours. On their legs they wear tight trousers, not loosely fitting like those of the Parthians and Armenians. The horses have frontlets carefully made to measure and also have side armour.

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As what Arrian said, the cavalrymen were brightly dressed and richly armored. They even wore plumes on their helmets as additional decorations. And the masks were described as full-faced, with holes for the eyes. The masks were carved after human faces, with detailed features that made them looked life-like. Plus, these metallic faces may depict male, or female (which is identifiable through the sculptured hair and accessories like diadems) and probably used to reenact traditional battles.

Being impressive and to draw the audience was the main purpose of the lavish armor and shiny silvered mask. It was a sporting event after all, complete with spectators, and the spectators would be entertained to see impressive figures on their horse. As one writer noted, "a cavalcade of richly armoured horses and men – who in their masked helmets with silvered faces looked like divine beings."

The Sports

Reenactors in the Hippika Gymnasia event.

Reenactors in the Hippika Gymnasia event.

With all of the colorful sports attire, one might wonder how the Romans play their game. The Hippika Gymnasia, which means “horse exercise” was basically a simulated cavalry battle. Be noted that the name is in Greek, coined by the Roman writer Arrian as he was using Greek language. The exact wording of the event in Latin was unknown.

Going back to the event, it aimed to allow the Roman cavalry both to practice their moves, and display their skills as well (and what a way to do it in decorated armor and mask). And since this was just a game, no one was expected to kill each other, unlike gladiatorial combats. The horses were also armored for protection.

They held their tournament outside the fort, and the players were divided into two opposing teams. One would play the attackers, the other, the defenders. The teams were armed with mock weapons, like fake javelins and darts, as well as a large shield. Their version of the military shield was lighter, to not sacrifice mobility. With their shields, the teams will form a cavalry version of the testudo, with two of the defenders at the front to act as a target of the opposing team. The opposing team would then try to hit the defenders, as the defenders protect themselves with their shields. His other team-mates will attempt to hit the passing attacker. This maneuver required great horsemanship, as one must throw his javelin at his target while trying to defend himself with the shield. Skills were also require to hit a target while moving, and trying to watch their unprotected rear.

Other events included throwing as many darts as they can while in full gallop, and hurling a lance with accuracy.

And lastly, perhaps the most applicable was the chase. The cavalry will demonstrate how they chase an enemy and prevent him from regrouping.

Usage in real Combat

Fully armored cavalryman in sporting events.

Fully armored cavalryman in sporting events.

Though historians were still unsure, there are evidence that the Roman cavalry also wore their masks during real battles. Again, a masked face charging at you will have an added bonus of terror, in addition to protection. Samurai warriors wore demonic masks, but as people commented, the shiny masks of the Roman cavalry brought a different form of fright. The shiny exterior and frozen expressions seem to bring chills to an observer, and a friend reckoned that they looked uncanny. In the site of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, masked helmets were found, worn this time by standard bearers.

And as an addition, examples of this ornate war masks were Ribchester Helmet, and the Crosby Garrett Helmet (used in sporting events).


Reference

1. McCall, Jeremiah (2001). The Cavalry of the Roman Republic. London: Routledge.

2. Dixon, Karen R.; Southern, Pat. The Roman cavalry: from the first to the third century AD, p. 128. Routledge, 1997

3.Maxfield, Valerie A. The military decorations of the Roman army, p. 74. University of California Press, 1981

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