Outfitting soldiers in the movie Gladiator took a lot of guesswork because rust has eradicated most details of ancient armor. So University of Bradford archaeologists excavating a first-century Roman fort near Hadrian's Wall in northern England were thrilled to turn up a cache of intact limb protectors unlike those known from any Roman statues or frescoes. "It's like depictions of gladiator gear, with strips of metal plating held together by leather or wire. It certainly wasn't standard-issue gear," says project archaeologist John Zant. He and his team also turned up a chain-link neck-and-shoulder guard similar to armor worn by Persian and Parthian cavalrymen, enemies of the Romans.
An X ray of first-century Roman armor found in England shows bronze wires connecting the iron plates.Courtesy of Guzalian Photography/Royal Armories
Roman armories mass-produced basic plate shirts and helmets for the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed from Africa to Britain. "But the Romans were practical-minded. If they saw somebody with gear that looked useful, certain individuals or units might unofficially adopt it," Zant says. Such embellishments might give an army an edge. "Imagine 5,000 guys marching at you with the sun glinting off their armor. A battle could have been half lost before it even started," he says.