Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, July 15, 2019

Did Roman Legionaries Wear Red Tunics?

Classic Roman Red Uniforms

Roman and Byzantine Uniforms

  • What we know about Roman and then Eastern Roman uniforms is minimal and perhaps mostly wrong. As for the use of the color "red", it may not have been used too much more than other colors.
  • If red was a dominant color in a united Roman Army I doubt that it continued too long once the East broke off from Rome. Over time an independent East would have started to establish its own military traditions.

Hollywood costume departments have perhaps poisoned our history.  The "classic" red Roman uniform used in so many movies may have never existed. Instead the "uniforms" might have been mix of whatever happened to be available.

We have more evidence about uniforms for the purely Roman period, still even that is limited.

But on January 17, 395 Theodosius I (r. 379-95), the last Emperor of a united Roman Empire died.  The day before on January 16th, Emperor Theodosius commanded Roman troops stationed from Mesopotamia to Morocco to England to Bulgaria.  But at some point on the 17th a sole commander-in-chief of the Roman military machine died.

The death of the Emperor led to the final split of the Empire into two political entities, the West (Occidentale) and the East (Orientale). 

For many decades to come the Eastern Roman Army would not have looked or acted much different from its Western counterpart.  Any changes in uniforms, unit structure and tactics would have been very gradual.  

The early American Republic shows how rapidly uniforms can change. Between 1776 and World War I the U.S. Army had six distinct uniform styles - Revolution, 1812, Mexican War, Civil War-Indian Wars, Spanish-Philippine Wars and the WWI.

If American uniforms could change so rapidly in basically a 150 year period, the possible changes in Roman and Byzantine uniforms over centuries could be considerable and perhaps mostly undocumented.

Where the color red fit in is anybody's guess.

Military of the Roman Republic and Empire wore loosely regulated dress and armor. The contemporary concept of uniforms was not part of Roman culture and there were considerable differences in detail. Armor was not standardized and even that produced in state factories varied according to the province of origin. 
Likewise the Romans had no concept of obsolescence. Provided it remained serviceable, soldiers were free to use armor handed down by family members, buy armor from soldiers who had completed their service or wear discontinued styles of armor if they preferred it to (or could not afford) the latest issue. Thus it was common for legions to wear a mix of various styles that could cover a considerable time period.
Fragments of surviving clothing and wall paintings indicate that the basic tunic of the Roman soldier was of red or undyed off-white wool
Senior commanders are known to have worn white cloaks and plumes. The centurions who made up the long serving backbone of the legions were distinguished by transverse crests on their helmets, chest ornaments corresponding to modern medals and the long cudgels that they carried.

Ever changing uniforms
Eastern Empire troops about 530 AD.  The great General Belisarius directs his soldiers.  The painting is the artist's view. It could be dead on or far from the mark. Were the uniforms more "Roman" with red cloth? or had the army totally changed? No one knows for sure. 
We do have the historian Procopius discussing weapons, armor and tactics in the 500s. The troops being clad in red (or in any other color) is not brought up.

reenactor dressed as a Roman soldier in lorica segmentata - a type of personal armor used by soldiers of the Roman Empire, consisting of metal strips ("girth hoops" fashioned into circular bands), fastened to internal leather straps.

(From Imperium Romanum) - In films, historical reconstructions and illustrations, Roman legionaries are dressed in red tunics. But in reality, did the ancient Romans in the army have a unified dress, which was mainly made up of red?
At the beginning, it should be noted what was symbolized by the red color. In the Romans’ sense, it was the color and symbol of Mars – the god of war and the mythological father of twins Romulus and Remus. Thus, red was of great importance in the public sphere of the Romans, who considered themselves a warlike people, coming directly from Mars.
On the battlefield the red tunic worn under the armor represented blood and strength. Certainly, the compact line of Roman infantry, dressed in red, had a psychological impact on the enemy army, which perceived it as strong and valiant.

Fresco from the Doctor’s House in Pompeii showing three Roman soldiers: two in white tunics and one in red tunic.

We do not have any hard evidence that the legionaries were wearing only red (as we commonly see). You need to know that the soldiers themselves took care of their wardrobe and often, for example, received parcels from their families, including with tunics. Thus, they certainly had more than one. What’s more, there was no requirement for unified weapons and clothing. And yes, soldiers had different types of armor (depending on what they could afford) and different colors of tunics.
It also happened that the generals confiscated the fabrics in a given area and assigned them to the attire for soldiers. There was no top-down command to use only red. In addition, one should also take into account the fact that there were various access to individual dyes at different latitudes. The cheap color in Egypt did not necessarily have to cost as much as Britain.
The price itself was also a big barrier. Legionnaires did not earn much money, and the tunic during service was easy to get dirty and destroyed. Probably the tunic was losing its color after many washes, and gray-bure colors predominated. It is certain that tunic in natural colors was worn, i.e. from white, through shades of gray, browns to black. During the ceremony, specially prepared snow-white tunics were set up.
The proof that the soldiers were serving in various colors of tunics is a fresco from one of the houses in Pompeii. We can see there two legionaries in white tunics, and one in red clothes.
It can certainly be said, however, that red was the most popular because of the cheapness of its production. White and dark colors (i.e. dark brown) probably predominated. Among the higher command of the legion appeared more expensive – “red scarlet”. The most expensive purple, in turn, was reserved for generals, and later only for emperors.
When it comes to Roman soldiers and rowers serving in the sea fleet, we know that they had blue tunics thanks to a Vegetius (writer from the 4th century CE).

Late Roman Reenactors
All colors are represented

Postings from the Quora website

Tim O'Neill, Head Inquisitor against bad history.

Our evidence for the colour of tunics worn by Roman soldiers is scanty and not absolutely certain.  Judging from traces of paint on some funerary monuments, some wall paintings, references in Roman historians and literature and archaeological finds, the most common colour for legionary tunics was off-white - i.e. undyed and untreated wool.  The second most common colour seems to have been a deep brownish red.  The latter was not the result of any expensive dye and was made using dried madder root: one of the cheapest and most common dyes of the time.  Parade dress seems to have required a special dress tunic made of bleached wool.

We have some other evidence of officers wearing blue tunics, as well as some evidence of green and mustard yellow.  But in the Late Republican and Early Imperial Periods, off-white and then madder red would have been the most common colours.

For more details see Graham Sumner, Roman Military Clothing Vol. 1 - 100 BC - AD 200 (Osprey: 2002).  Sumner gathers all the evidence we have on the subject and makes the most reasonable assessment we can come to on the subject.

Soldiers wearing blue.

The basis for the idea of red as a uniform colour is archaeological- we have evidence that some soldiers wore red-dyed coloured clothes.
The problem with the idea of a uniform colour however is rather obvious:
  1. Just because you find evidence of one colour in one instance does not mean everyone, everywhere that served as a Roman soldier wore the same colour, certainly not the same shade. We have no evidence pointing either direction- it’s possible it was a uniform colour, but it’s also possible it is not.
  2. Roman soldiers would wear armour over the red clothes, so the effectiveness of a uniform would not be very useful.
  3. Colours and clothes fade, whereas banners and shields are much more practical uses for visually identifying who was friendly or not. There are accounts where soldiers took up shields to confuse the enemy.
  4. As another user pointed out, higher ranking officers would have wanted more distinctive clothing and armour, so there would have been resistance to some sort of institutional uniform colour.
As for the movies, this is clearly done for dramatic and simplified purposes- it is easy to make sure everyone knows who is a Roman when you just have them dressed in segmental armour and red tunics. In reality though, for much of Rome’s republican history they looked very much like Gauls, especially given that their equipment were ripoffs of Celtic gear.
The economic costs is also another interesting subject- because Roman troops in the republican period were citizen levies (they brought and paid for their own gear), they would likely skimp on the issue of colour dye as part of their budget- the stipends they received for service was incredibly small. We’re talking money allowance of ten bucks to cover for your lunch, when your lunch is like 9 bucks. If you or I was a Roman soldier we wouldn’t even bother with the red dye since it’s not even effective.
Another user pointed out parade dress, this is a more likely answer. Flashy red dye would make for a nice scene when you march in a triumph, and of course you’d want to make yourself look good for the crowd. In all other circumstances you’d likely not care.
There is debate on whether legionaries among centuries or maniples would outfit themselves with different colours to assist in identification; so that group of men next to yours might wear green whereas the guys behind wear yellow, etc. This is entirely plausible, but there is still the economic part- you have to make sure you got all the colours for everyone, which explains why many people find this unlikely.

Scotts Photo Art

Jason Almendra, Most Viewed Writer History 6Feb19/14May19 392k views

Actually I get the impression from all the material I've seen or read that the Roman Legions looked somewhat ragtag. Armor was non-standard. If a legionaire brought his grandpa's old armor & sword he wore it. So some guys wore lorica segmentata & some wore lorica hamata. There was a fresco that showed that only the officer like the tribunii & the legates wore red tunics. Like the British army they used a red dye from the madder plant. The soldiers also wore a red cloak in bad weather called the sagum. Their civilian togas were plain white with a stripe from the murex snail dye. Broad for the senatorial class & thin for the equites class.

Uniform was not a concept at that time. So colors of the the tunics worn by different men in the same unit could vary. There were exceptions for special unit like palace guards (the candidati in Byzantium for example are thought to have worn all white tunics). 

I personally think that, while undyed wool was the cheapest choice (and therefore this wa probably what you would get from an imperial depot) madder-dyed tunics would have the great advantage of not showing the stains. I don't mean blood stains, but simply the rust stains produced by the armour rubbing against a sweated tunic, plus the stains from the oil used to keep the armour clean. Added to this, the famous Spartans were said to wear red, which would be an additional incentive so see red as martial. So I think (just out of my brain, without evidence) that red-brown could in fact be popular choice among soldiers.

"The last legionaries, The Late Roman Army" Tarraco Viva 2019

Ian Miller, Independent physical scientist, author

The red dyes most readily come from madder when mordanted with alum. Weld mordants to give a very nice yellow, and they were the main dyes available. Indigo was imported from India, but was difficult to get. The Imperial purple came from thousands of shellfish and part of the reason it was reserved for the Imperial family was that it was so rare. Woad is much the same as indigo, and the indigo is a different sort of dye it is nor fixed by mordanting, so you can get a purple by lightly coating a red with indigo, and a green by overseeing weld with woad.
Th fact is that many plant dyes give reds or browns, so they would be the most commonly used. Part of the reason for dyeing wool with mordant dyeing is also that it lasts longer.

Stan Harris, Interested in ancient history.

The Roman armies spanned many centuries of the republic and empire, but I speculate that except for special units like bodyguards for the Consul, Emperor and suchlike, soldiers dress would've been rather drab and nondescript.

Soldiers back then didn't actually wear "uniform" in the sense that we use the word today.

A common legionnaire would've probably worn a simple tunic and cape (in colder weather) in a commonly available color.

(Ancient Roman military clothing)      (quora.com)

(imperiumromanum.edu)      (Byzantine army)


Anonymous said...

even the british in america wars wear red til the WWI i think
in the bóer war before wwi i reckon red too

Anonymous said...

red was nit a good choice
in those times of close quarter fights , it mend to be a courageos color , in it the blood cannot be seen … thats the motive
but them came de rifle , and the long range rifle
the last ones red pant trousers zouaves , that a heavy tool and germans aim on those red ones … or before the brits suffer in the madhi , and bóer wars .

Anonymous said...

i mean
red was NOT a good choice

i was nit only for oposite sharp shooters

Gary said...

Good point

Anonymous said...

wearing red colours also mend to be boldish for romans as they face bow and arrow extreme acurate tribesmen and women as in britain boudica wars
neverdeless they engage in formations to skip those

Anonymous said...

even the british in america wars wear red til the WWI i think
in the bóer war before wwi i reckon red too"

It was a transition. Britain began to introduce khaki in the earlier 19th century and it became increasingly common in colonial wars until it was finally adopted into all regiments come the Boer war. By ww1 british soldiers had entirely abandoned red as most countries had abandoned such bright colours though at the start of the war the French were still wearing very bright blue and red trousers they adapted.