Few empires lasted as long or employed as many soldiers as the Romans. Roman soldiers were, especially when compared to their foes, very heavily armed and armored. Over the centuries Roman armor changed significantly as a result of new fashions, new technologies, and new challenges. Roman helmets reflected these changes and were produced in vast quantities. Surviving examples of Roman helmets range from the plain and simple to the fabulously elaborate. Yet all Roman helmets ultimately served the same purpose; providing their wearers with protection on the battlefield. It should also be noted that we do not necessarily know the names that the Romans used for their different styles of helmets. In the modern era, different systems of classifying Roman helmets have been developed at different times, so some Roman helmets may have other names than the ones below.
Montefortino: The Longest Serving Roman Helmet
Early Roman helmets tended to borrow their designs and styles from the various Italiotes, Etruscans, and other peoples of the Italian Peninsula. This makes identifying and classifying distinctly Roman helmets of the Roman Kingdom and the Early Republic rather difficult. Though it would be a mistake to assume that Roman soldiers did not wear helmets during those periods. This means that the earliest type of Roman helmet that can easily be identified as such is the Montefortino type. As with many other types of Roman helmet, it originated with the Celts. This helmet came into use sometime around 300 BCE and saw service into the 1st Century CE.
The Montefortino was made most commonly from bronze, but iron was also occasionally used. It is characterized by its conical or rounded shape and a raised central knob on top of the helmet. It also featured a protruding neck guard and cheek plates which protected the side of the head. Most finds are missing their cheek guards, which has led to speculation that they may have been made of some sort of perishable material. Often the name of the soldier who wore the helmet was inscribed inside of it. Montefortino style Roman helmets are very similar to the Coolus style of Roman helmets so that they are often grouped together in modern classification systems.
Coolus: Caesar’s Helmet
Like the Montefortino helmet, which it resembles, the Coolus Roman helmet was also Celtic in origin. Both helmets were likely adopted by the Romans because their simple design meant that they could be mass-produced cheaply. This was critical during this period as many Roman citizens were called upon to serve in the army. The Coolus style appears to have come into use during the 3rd Century BCE and remained in service until the 1st Century CE. It saw its greatest use during the period of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (58-50 BCE), possibly because large numbers of Celtic armorers were employed by the Romans at this time.
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The Coolus style of Roman helmet was usually made from brass or bronze, though it is possible that some were also made of iron. They were globular or hemispherical in shape rather than conical. These Roman helmets also featured a neck guard and a turned, cast soldered or riveted on crest knob. Like most helmets of Celtic origin, they were pierced to allow for ties or cheek guards to be added to the helmet. Overall, this was a fairly plain Roman helmet, with the only decorations being occasional ridges or raised panels on the cheek guards.
Agen: The “First” Ancestral Roman Helmet
The Agen style is another example of Celtic influence on Roman armor. They were in use during the Late Republic and Early Imperial periods of Roman History; or roughly 100 BCE- 100 CE. What sets them apart from other Roman helmets of this period is that they were made of iron rather than brass or bronze. Otherwise, their appearance is very similar to that of the Coolus style. The Celts were renowned metalworkers in Antiquity and are considered to be pioneers in the development of iron helmets. Only a handful of Agen style Roman helmets are known to have survived into the modern era.
The Agen style features a deep, rounded bowl with flattened tops and steep sides, as well as cheek guards. They have a narrow brim that flares out in the back to form a neck guard that was embossed with two shallow, semi-circular steps and the helmet had a triangular sectioned horizontal rib all the way around the bowl. It has been speculated that this rib may have functioned to increase the rigidity of the helmet or perhaps to improve ventilation. Across the front of the bowl, there were a pair of simple, recurved, embossed eyebrows, which would become a standard feature in later helmets. The cheek guards are held in place by a pair of rivets on each side of the helmet.
Port: The “Second” Ancestral Roman Helmet
The Port style is very similar to the Agen style, although they are not immediately similar in appearance. They also exhibit a noticeable Celtic influence and were in use from roughly 100 BCE- 100 CE, during the Late Republic and Early Imperial periods of Roman History. Their appearance is very similar to the Coolus style of Roman helmet, although the Port style has a far more “Roman” look to it even compared to the Agen style. Again, like the Agen helmets, they were made of iron rather than bronze or brass. Today, only a handful of Port style Roman helmets are known to have survived into the modern era.
While the Agen and Port styles are not immediately similar in appearance, they both exhibit features that would become standard with later designs. Both styles of helmet feature a deep, rounded bowl, with flattened tops, and steep sides, as well as cheek guards. Helmets of the Port type feature a bowl that extends downward at the back of the helmet that has two prominent embossed ridges. They also feature a pair of simple embossed recurved “eyebrows” across the front of the helmet. However, compared to the Agen style, the Port Style has a less pronounced brim and a more pronounced neck guard.
Imperial Gallic: The Iconic Roman Helmet
Following Caesar’s Gallic Wars (58-50 BCE), there was a widespread adoption of iron helmets among the soldiers of the Roman army. With the conquest of Gaul, Rome now had unfettered access to the region’s Celtic Armorers. This resulted in the development of a new style of Roman helmet known as the Imperial type, which is subdivided into Imperial Gallic and Imperial Italic. The Imperial Gallic Roman helmet first appeared during the Late Republic and saw service until the 3rd Century CE. It was originally a hybrid of the Agen and Port style and had features derived from both.
The bowl of the Imperial Gallic style is rounded, with a flattened top and straight sides. They also feature prominent cheek guards that were made from iron. From the Agen style it drew the semi-circular embossed on its neck guard, which works to increase rigidity and forms a suspension ring on the lower surface. From the Port style it drew its two raised occipital ridges above the outward flanged neck guard and the embossed “eyebrows” on the front of the helmet. Imperial Gallic Roman helmets also feature a heavy reinforcing peal at the front of the helmet which is unique to their design. Some also feature a pair of iron bars riveted crosswise on the top of the helmet, which functioned as a sort of reinforcement.
Imperial Italic: The Anachronistic One
The other Imperial style of Roman helmet is known as the Imperial Italic because of the strong and distinctly Italic influences in its design and appearance. These helmets were likely manufactured in Italian workshops where features belonging to Greco-Etruscan and Italian traditions were added. Like the Imperial Gallic Roman helmet, the Imperial Italic helmet first appeared during the Late Republic and saw service until the 3rd Century BCE. In the Modern Era, the Imperial Italic is usually associated with officers like Centurions and the Praetorian Guard. However, it is not entirely clear if they were worn as a badge of rank or if this was merely a sign of the greater purchasing power of these soldiers.
The overall appearance of the Imperial Italic style is very similar to that of the Imperial Gallic. However, these helmets also exhibit a number of similarities with the Attic style of Greek helmet from the 4th to 3rd Centuries BCE. The features which set the Imperial Italic Roman helmet apart were their reinforcing peaks, their round plate twist on crest fixture, and their lack of eyebrows and throat flanges. A number of surviving examples of this type were made of bronze rather iron, which is also considered to be more of the Italic rather than Celtic tradition. These archaic features my indicate that these helmet served more of a display or ceremonial purpose and were not necessarily expect to withstand the rigors of combat.
Intercisa-Simple Ridge Type: The “Eastern”
Around the end of the 3rd Century CE and the beginning of the 4th Century CE, there was a marked shift in Roman helmet designs. The earlier helmets with their Celtic influence were abandoned in favor of helmets with a marked steppe and Sassanid Persian influence. This “orientalisation” may have resulted from changes brought on by the Tetrarchy, which saw a shift of political, cultural, and economic power to the Eastern parts of the Empire. As part of this shift, state-run factories were established to produce armor which led to the development of helmets that could be produced quickly and offered lots of protection. These Roman helmets are today known as ridge type helmets and date from the 4th to early 5th Centuries CE.
The Intercisa or Simple Ridge Type features a composite, bipartite bowl construction of two half skulls. They are joined together by a front-to-back ridge piece. The bowl edge, neck guard, and cheek guards were pierced with holes to attach a lining and to fix all of the pieces together. The upper edge of the cheek guards and the lower edge of the bowl also often had matching oval shapes cut in them for the ears. Perhaps the most famous example of this type sports a large iron crest that runs front to back.
Berkasovo-Heavy Ridge Type: The Most Protective Roman Helmet
As the earlier Celtic influences continued to wane, Roman helmets began to exhibit more and more steppe or Sassanid influences. This is particularly apparent in the Berkasovo or Heavy Ridge Type which appears to have made its first appearance in the 3rd Century CE. In general, these helmets are more solid and intricate than the Intercisa or Simple Ridge type Roman helmet, which has led to speculation that they were intended as cavalry helmets or for higher-ranking officers. Surviving examples usually exhibit more decorative features than Intercisa or Simple Ridge Type Roman helmets and offer far greater protection.
The Berkasovo or Heavy Ridge Type had a bowl that was formed from two halves. These were then joined together by a heavy band that ran front to back and another band that ran along the rim, curving over each eye. A unique feature of these helmets was the nasal guard, which is not found in the Roman helmets that exhibit a Celtic influence. The cheek guards are much larger than those of the Intercisa or Simple Ridge Type of Roman helmet but are attached in the same manner. They also lack the ear holes found in most other types of Roman helmet. Most of these helmets were made from iron and sheathed in another metal, such as silver, so that most of what has survived is the metal that once sheathed the iron.
Spangenhelm: The Ribbed Roman Helmet
This Roman helmet saw extensive use first among the Scythians and Sarmatians of the steppe, but its origins may have been further to the east. Increasing contact with these people brought the Spangenhelm to the attention of the Romans, especially during Trajan’s conquest of Dacia (101-102 & 105-106 CE). During the reign of Hadrian (117-138 CE) the Romans first began to make use of Sarmatian style cataphract cavalry and armor. By the 3rd and 4th Centuries CE, the Spangenhelm saw regular use alongside both the Intercisa and Berkasovo types. This type of Roman helmet influenced the construction and development of helmets across Eurasia, as late as the 6th or 8th Century CE, depending on how one interprets the evidence.
The bowl of the Spangenhelm helmet was usually formed from four to six plates, riveted to four to six bands, topped by a circular disc or plate riveted to the apex. A brow was riveted around the rim, which arched over the eyes, to which a T-shaped nasal guard was riveted. There were also two large cheek guards and a neck guard that were attached with hinges. Some examples of Spangenhelm type Roman helmets feature a ring attached to the apex of the helmet, which may have been used to attach decorative elements or to make it easier to carry the helmet.