Scutum (//; plural scuta) is the Latin word for shield, although it has in modern times come to be specifically associated with the rectangular, semi-cylindrical body shield carried by Roman legionaries. Historically, Roman shields were of varying types depending on the role of the soldier who carried it. Oval, circular and rectangular shields were used throughout Roman history.
The oval scutum is depicted on the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in Rome, the Aemilius Paullus monument at Delphi, and there is an actual example found at Kasr el-Harit in Egypt. Gradually the scutum evolved into the rectangular (or sub-rectangular) type of the early Roman Empire.
By the end of the 3rd century the rectangular scutum seems to have disappeared. Fourth century archaeological finds (especially from the fortress of Dura-Europos) indicate the subsequent use of oval or round shields which were not semi-cylindrical, but were either dished (bowl-shaped) or flat. Roman artwork from the end of the 3rd century till the end of Antiquity show soldiers wielding oval or round shields.
The word "scutum" survived the old Roman Empire and entered the military vocabulary of the Byzantine Empire. Even in the 11th century the Byzantines called their armoured soldiers skutatoi (Grk. σκυτατοι).
The scutum was a 10-kilogram (22 lb) large rectangle curved shield made from three sheets of wood glued together and covered with canvas and leather, usually with a spindle shaped boss along the vertical length of the shield. The best surviving example, from Dura-Europos in Syria, was 105.5 centimetres (41.5 in) high, 41 centimetres (16 in) across, and 30 centimetres (12 in) deep (due to its semicylindrical nature), with an unknown thickness. It was well made and extremely sturdy.
Advantages and disadvantages
The scutum is light enough to be held in one hand and its large height and width covered the entire wielder, making him very unlikely to get hit by missile fire and in hand-to-hand combat. The metal boss, or umbo, in the centre of the scutum also made it an auxiliary punching weapon as well. Its composite construction meant that early versions of the scutum could fail from a heavy cutting or piercing blow which was experienced in the Roman Campaigns against Carthage and Dacia where the Falx and Falcata could easily penetrate and rip through the scutum. The effects of these weapons prompted design changes that made the scutum more resilient such as thicker planks and metal edges.
When compared to the earlier aspis which it replaced, the aspis was heavier and provided less protective coverage than the scutum but was much more durable.
According to Polybius the scutum gave Roman soldiers an edge over their Carthaginian enemies during the Punic Wars: "Their arms also give the men both protection and confidence owing to the size of the shield."
with one eye gone, his thigh and shoulder wounded, and his shield bored through [with arrows] in a hundred and twenty places, [he] continued to guard the gate of a fortress put in his charge... [he] boarded the ship and drove the enemy before him with the boss of his shield.
The Roman writer Cassius Dio in his Roman History described Roman against Roman in the Battle of Philippi: "For a long time there was pushing of shield against shield and thrusting with the sword, as they were at first cautiously looking for a chance to wound others without being wounded themselves."
The shape of the scutum allowed packed formations of legionaries to overlap their shields to provide an effective barrier against missiles. The most novel (and specialised, for it afforded negligible protection against other attacks) use was the testudo (Latin for "tortoise"), which added legionnaires holding shields from above to protect against descending missiles (such as arrows or objects thrown by defenders on walls).
One day, when they fell into an ambush and were being struck by dense showers of arrows, [the legionaries] suddenly formed the testudo by joining their shields, and rested their left knees on the ground. The barbarians... threw aside their bows, leaped from their horses, and drawing their daggers, came up close to put an end to them. At this the Romans sprang to their feet, extended their battle-line... and confronting the foe face to face, fell upon them... and cut down great numbers.
For if [the legionaries] decided to lock shields for the purpose of avoiding the arrows by the closeness of their array, the [knights] were upon them with a rush, striking down some, and at least scattering the others; and if they extended their ranks to avoid this, they would be struck with the arrows.
Cassius Dio describes scuta being used to aid an ambush:
Now Pompey was anxious to lead Oroeses into conflict before he should find out the number of the Romans, for fear that when he learned it he might retreat... he kept the rest behind... in a kneeling position and covered with their shields, causing them to remain motionless, so that Oroeses should not ascertain their presence until he came to close quarters.
Accordingly some of the gates were opened by [legionaries], and as soon as a few others had entered, all, both inside and outside, at a given signal, raised a shout and struck their spears upon their shields, and the trumpeters blew a blast, with the result that utter panic overwhelmed the Syracusans.
In 27 BC the emperor Augustus was awarded a golden shield by the Senate for his part in ending the civil war and 'restoring' the Republic, according to the Res Gestae Divi Augusti. The shield, the Res Gestae says, was hung outside the Curia Julia, serving as a symbol of the Princeps' "valour, clemency, justice and piety". The 5th century writer Vegetius added that scuta helped in identification:
Lest the soldiers in the confusion of battle should be separated from their comrades, every cohort had its shields painted in a manner peculiar to itself. The name of each soldier was also written on his shield, together with the number of the cohort and century to which he belonged.
However, since Vegetius was not a military man and his works (for example De Re Militari) freely, anachronistically mixed the present with the dim and distant past, we must take his descriptions with a grain of salt. Shields in Vegetius' day were used to distinguish between units, but, contrary to his claim here, there is little evidence that this was true of the earlier empire.
Other uses of the word
The name Scutum has been adopted as one of the 88 modern constellations, and by UK luxury clothing maker Aquascutum, which became famous in the 19th century for its waterproof menswear. Hence the name, which in Latin means "water shield'".
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