Goth and Roman Weapons and Armor in the 4th Century

Goth and Roman Weapons and Armor in the 4th Century

By Ludwig H. Dyck

In the 4th century AD, military service in the Roman Empire was so unpopular that villagers used bribery and even self-mutilation to avoid conscription. The best recruits came from the frontier provinces or from beyond the empire’s borders. Germans and Sarmatians rose to the highest positions of command. The Romans even adopted German battle tactics. Little wonder, then, that Roman armor and weapons came to closely resemble those of their barbarian foes. Both Goth and East Roman weapons and armor were in turn influenced by those of Iranian steppe peoples like the Sarmatians.

The most popular armor of the age was ring mail, made of iron rings linked together. In addition, the Romans had scale armor of overlapping bronze scales; it was easier to produce than ring mail but less flexible. Ammianus also mentions the use of breastplates. The Germans also used leather armor, such as studded deer skins. Among the Goths there could be found the more exotic armor of the steppe nomads. The latter included overlapping scales of bone, horn and iron, sown together with ox or horse sinews, and split horse hoof “dragon scale” armor.

Since third century, the most common helmet of all nationalities was the conical spangenhelm. It was made of several plates held together by reinforced bands. In the fourth century, there also appeared the “ridge helmet,” made of a two-part bowl held together by a central ridge. Both types of helmets usually had separate cheek and neck guards laced onto the bowl.

Shields were about three feet across, oval or round, and held by a central hand grip behind a prominent boss. An iron binding around the rim and leather mountings strengthened the wooden shield. Arm straps were rare as the Germans used the shield to ‘punch’ into the enemy. Shields were brightly painted and the prime means of Roman unit identification, along with helmet crests and plumes.

The spangenhelm in McBride’s painting of cavalry combat seen in the title image above, seems to be modeled after this gilded spangenhelm from Krefeld-Gellep (Museum Burg Linn, Krefeld, MacDowall and McBridge, Germanic Warrior, Osprey, 1996).

For the Romans and the Visigoths, the spear was the primary weapon. It could be thrown or used in close combat. Third-century Goth spears have been found with runic inscriptions, such as tilarids (Assailant) or renja (One rushing to attack). Ostrogoth and Roman heavy cavalry also carried the two-handed kontos, the Sarmatian long lance. This could have been used with devastating impact during their downhill cavalry charge at Adrianople in 378 AD.

Goth Spears
Goth spearheads (Henry Bradley, The Goths (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887), courtesy of Heritage History)

A long, heavy slashing sword, just over 3 feet in overall length, was the preferred side arm. The Romans used the Celtic spatha while Goth swords were of Sarmatian design. The Germans honored the sword above all other arms. The best blades were pattern-welded, made up of twisted iron rods which were hammered together to form the core of the blade. The finished blades would shine with a flickering light and were often given heroic names and attributes. Other close combat weapons included various axes, knives and clubs.

Both sides used an array of missile weapons. Skirmishers often carried two or three javelins. From two-and-a-half to four feet in length, javelins had an accurate range of 30 to 60 feet. A missile of greater range was the 4- to 8-inch-long, iron-headed dart. Both darts and javelins could be fastened to the inside of the shield. A simpler weapon but one capable of crushing armor, was the sling.

Perhaps the deadliest weapon of all was the composite recurved bow of the East Roman archer. Of Scythian origin, this bow was the most feared weapon of the Huns. The unstrung bow resembled the letter C and was opened back against its natural curve. It was made of wood with a layer of horn on the inside and a layer of sinew on the outside. The tips were reinforced with antler or bone. Such bows could penetrate armor at 300 feet and unarmored targets at two to three times that range. Archers were also common among the Goths, most of who used long bows.

Late Roman army – post mid 4th century CE. Artwork by Johnny Shumate,Pinterest

The list of arms is by no means inclusive. The legions and the many Roman cavalry and infantry auxiliary units included soldiers of a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. Some of these would have deserted to the Goths, who themselves were a coalition of different tribal groups. Such diversity was reflected in the equipment. In these armies there could also have been the weapons of the Arabs who fought the Goths at Constantinople, or of the wild Alans, who were said to have draped their steeds with the heads and flayed skins of their foes.

Above all, this was an age of the individual warrior who armed himself as he saw fit. There was little uniformity, because worn or inferior equipment was replaced with whatever could be bought or looted while on campaign. In general, though, the Roman soldier was better equipped than his barbarian counterpart due to the state-run fabricae. At the 377 AD battle of Ad Salices, many Goths still wielded fire hardened clubs. This said, however, Roman mass production was often of poor quality while the craftsmanship of Germanic smiths was superb. Goth warriors of renown would have sported weapons and armor, as good as or better than those of the Romans.

Sources: Hans Delbrück, The Barbarian Invasions (Lincon: The University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. 247, Jennifer Liang, Warriors of the Dark Ages (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2000), p., 122, 128,  130, Macrellinus Ammianus, The Later Roman Empire, trans. John. C. Rolfe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939), XXXI. 7, 13. 4., Peter Wilcox and Rafael Trevino, Barbarians Against Rome (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2000) p. 18, 20, 21, 39,  48, Simon MacDowall, Germanic Warrior 236-568 AD (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996), p. 16-18, 23, 52, 53, 55, 58, Simon MacDowall, Late Roman Cavalryman (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1999), p. 52, Simon MacDowall, Late Roman Infantryman (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1999), p. 8, 9, 14, 16, 21, 31, 47, 52, 53, 57, 59, Tim Newark, The Barbarians. Warriors and Wars of the Dark Ages (Poole: Blandford Press, 1986), p. 14, 15, 17, Todd Malcom, Everyday Life of the Barbarians (New York. Dorset Press, 1972), p. 101, 119.

“Goth and Roman Weapons and Armor in the 4th Century” was originally published as a sidebar to “The Terror of the Goths, The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople, August 9, 378 AD,” in Military Heritage June 2001. The edition above contains additional images.