Organization of Roman legion in the Maniple and Cohort structures

Testudo formation demonstrated by reenactors. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Best description of the maniple and cohort structure for a Roman legion that I’ve read can be found in Roman Soldier Operations Manual: Daily Life * Fighting Tactics * Weapons * Equipment * Kit by Simon Forty.

This post will sketch out what the organization looks like in both structures.

The building block units of a legion will be shown, with the number of soldiers in each unit illustrated.



Book says the maniple structure was used from the 4th century B.C. until about 107 to 101 B.C. at the time of the Marian reforms.

There were three lines in a maniple. The front line of least experienced troops were the hastati.  Middle line were the principe. Back row was the older and most experienced soldiers, the triari.

The basic building block was the contuberium, or squad, which consisted of 6 soldiers who shared a tent and cooked their meals together.

A contuberium would look like this, with the soldier count listed and total for the unit:

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Pilum – javelin used by Roman Legionnaires.

Image of pilum courtesy of Adobe Stock.

A Pilum (plural pila) was a javelin thrown by Roman Legionnaires to disrupt an enemy line moments before closing for hand-to-hand contact.

The pilum was about 6 or 6 1/2 feet long, weighing between 2 and 5 pounds (heavier early in Roman era, lighter later).  There was an iron shaft at the front which was about a quarter inch diameter and about 2 feet long. A wood pole, 4 feet long or so was attached to the metal shaft. The wood added plenty of mass to the pilum giving it good penetration capacity. A point on the base of the pilum made it usable to stack with other pila in camp or plant in the ground for an ad hoc defense from cavalry.

A hard triangular tip was designed to punch through armor. With enough force it could penetrate a shield.

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Weaponry and armament of a Roman Legionnaire

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

In case you are browsing through posts here instead of landing by internet search, here’s a recap of the posts on this page describing the weaponry and armament of a Roman Legionnaire.

You will find this fits well with the description of the armor of God as described by the Apostle Paul in the sixth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians.

Posts on Legionnaire equipment and weaponry:

Upcoming posts:

  • Cloak

Galea – helmet worn by Roman Legionnaires.

Roman Legionnaire re-enactor wearing lorica hamata (chain mail), with gladius (sword) and pugio (daggar) on his balteus (belt), carrying a pilum (spear) and holding a scutum (shield). Also wearing what appears to be Imperial Gallic galea (helmet) with large plume on top of helmet. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

With a shield held in front of you, the most valuable and most exposed area to be protected is your head. Helmets were in used during the entire Roman Era, as well as routinely used by their predecessors and opponents.

Researchers have identified five major types of helmets, with large number of subtypes for each.

Common thread of all the helmets is the basic design was obtained from some other people group, adopted, then refined. That fits with a broader pattern I have observed that the Romans were aggressive in adopting good ideas used by enemies which they found helpful.


Galea – plural galeae

Wikipedia provides an introductory overview of galea.

Roman Soldier Operations Manual: Daily Life * Fighting Tactics * Weapons * Equipment * Kit by Simon Forty provides more detail, but alas, is not linkable and all the images are copyrighted.

The Complete Roman Army by Adrian Goldsworthy has several pages providing great discussion of helmets.

As is typical for the book, Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual by Philip Matyszak provides great ’advice’ to a Legionnaire shopping for a helmet.


Montefortino helmet

A Roman Montefortino helmet by Matthias Kabel  is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 . Notice the short and narrow neck guard and place to add cheek guard, which would probably have been made of leather.

Used from 4th century BC through 1st century AD

Earliest helmets were simple, with a round shape and small neck guard. These would have been easy to produce and cheaper than the later designs. They were made out of bronze.

The basic design was developed from Celtic helmets.

They apparently had cheek guards as well, since they typically have holes in the sides of the helmet. Reportedly, most of the Montefortino helmets discovered do not have a cheek guard, leading to speculation the cheek guards were made of leather instead of metal.


Coolus helmet

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Attrition rate in Roman Legions.

Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

No, I’m not talking about losses in battle. Disease all the time, famine in bad times, and not quite enough food in normal times were deadly in the ancient world. Not even until the American Civil War was germ theory of disease transmission a known thing. (Update: slight wording changes not identified as such.)

The death rate in ancient times was terrible.

In The Roman Army – The Greatest War Machine in the Ancient World, Chris McNab provides some estimates of the rate of losses in a Roman Legion (page 152).

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Lorica Segmentata and Lorica Hamata, body armor worn by Roman Legionaries.

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The body armor presented on a Roman Legionnaire, whether on ancient statues, modern re-enactors, or illustrations is usually the scaled plate armor referred to as Lorica Segmentata, a phrase that has been in use only since the 16th century.

Lorica Segmentata

The armor consists of horizontal scales, sort of like a lobster. Additional plates protect the shoulders.

Wikipedia says the insides of the plates were soft steel and the outside mild steel. The individual plates were hung on a leather harness with brass buckles. Later on rivets or hooks were used.

Lorica Segmentata. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The armor fastened in front and back.  The sections could be stored inside each other, allowing for compact storage.

Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual by Philip Matyszak explains a Legionaire would first put on a scarf to protect the neck and chest from being rubbed raw by the steel.

The plates required constant polishing to prevent rust.

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Caligae – the marching boots worn by Roman Legionnaires

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Legionnaires in the Roman army wore marching boots, called caligae (singular caliga). These may appear to be merely an open sandal. However, they were sturdy enough to wear all day, every day, even on long marches.

A thick lower sole would be attached to a mid sole with hobnails. This added strength to the boot and increased its durability. (I don’t know enough about shoe construction but that is the comment made by several sources.)

Hobnail (PSF).png has been released into the public domain courtesy of Pearson Scott Forseman.

For a conception of what hobnailed Roman caligae might look like, consider this photo of a hobnailed boot of the U.S. Union Army. The boot is thus circa 1861 to 1865.

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Balteus or cingulum- belt worn by Roman Legionnaires. Pugio – dagger carried by soldiers.

Roman Legionairre, with focus on belt, or balteus. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Roman soldiers would wear a belt around their waist.

I have not seen much discussion on the purpose of the belt. It would be the base for carrying some items. For example, a dagger, called a puglio, would be on the left side.  A money pouch could be carried on the belt, I suppose.

See update below for comments on purpose of a balteus.

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Equipment of a Roman Legionnaire

Fully equipped Roman Legionnaire. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The clothing and weaponry of a Legionnaire in the Roman army are described in  a series of posts. This fits well with this blog’s topic of ancient finances.

You will also find this fits well with the description of the armor of God as described by the Apostle Paul in the sixth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians.

Posts on Legionnaire equipment and weaponry:

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Gladius, sword used by Roman Legionnaires. Other edged weapons.

Roman Legionnaire re-enactor wearing chain mail armor, carrying a scutum, holding a hidden Pompeii style gladius at the ready. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The gladius is a short sword, about 2 feet long, used by soldiers in the Roman army. In the hands of trained legionnaires, the gladius was a potent offensive weapon.

Roman soldiers would advance side-by-side with their shield, called a scutum, held in their left hand and a gladius in their right hand. In this position, the sharp tip of the gladius was best used as a thrusting weapon to stab the enemy, aiming for the torso. In ancient times, an abdomen wound was usually fatal.

With a two foot length and sharp double edges, the gladius could also be used as for slashing or cutting. From comments I’ve read, the main use was for thrusting.

While the main use was thrusting, preferable for the abdomen, legionnaires were trained to take slashes of opportunity, say an exposed knee within reach below the opponents shield. In the other direction, if a shield was lowered, a slash at arm or neck could also end the fight in a moment.

(Note: This post has been updated and expanded several times.  For ease of reading, the revisions will not be identified as such.)

Wikipedia describes the various sizes of gladii (plural of gladius – yeah, I had to look it up):

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