Scars, Spoils and Splendour

© Daniel Hennemand

In 95 BC, Manius Aquillius, a former consul, was tried in Rome on charges corruption and extortion committed during his recent tenure as governor of Sicily. The evidence of numerous witnesses proved that Aquillius was guilty and his condemnation seemed assured. His defence lawyer, however, was not unduly concerned; his client would walk free. The lawyer was Marcus Antonius, grandfather of Mark Antony and one of the most renowned orators in Rome. While addressing the jury, he suddenly ripped open Aquillius’ clothing to reveal a scarred torso. See how all the scars are at the front of his body, declared Antonius, they are the distinguished marks of combat, the wounds sustained by a man who has never turned his back to the enemy. Antonius then directed the jury to examine a scar on Aquillius’ head, and reminded them that it had been received in a desperate single combat with Athenion, leader of a slave rebellion on Sicily. It was a dangerous wound, yet Aquillius had conquered his opponent and saved Sicily for Rome. Aquillius’ corruption was thus made to seem trivial; he was a hero and was duly acquitted.

The exoneration of Aquillius emphasises the fundamentally militaristic nature of Roman society. The Romans believed they were the children of the war god Mars and the field of battle was the arena in which a man showed his true worth. Virtus (manly courage and excellence) and gloria (fame and renown) were won in war. Scars were a symbol of virtus, proudly displayed and giving some men an authority that went beyond the usual confines of their social status. When campaigning for election to the consulship, Rome’s supreme magistracy, Gaius Marius announced that he was nothing like the usual aristocratic candidates. His was not a member of one of the famous Roman clans; he was a self-made man.

“I cannot, to justify your confidence, display family portraits [the wax effigies of accomplished ancestors displayed by nobles] or the triumphs and consulships of my forefathers; but if occasion requires, I can show spears, a banner, horse trappings and other military prizes, as well as scars on my chest. These are my portraits, my patent of nobility, not left to me by inheritance as theirs were [the nobles], but won by my own innumerable efforts and perils.”
Sallust, The War With Jugurtha, 85.29–30

Like the jurors at Aquillius’ trial, the Roman electorate could not resist such proof of courage: Marius was duly elected consul for 107 BC, and subsequently re-elected for five consecutive terms (104–100 BC). It is probable that Marius had loosened his toga to fully expose the scars on his chest and regaled the crowds with tales of how he had won them. This was a standard practice. In 167 BC, Sulpicius Galba, an ambitious young tribune, attempted to deny a triumphal procession to the victorious general Aemilius Paullus. An ancient senator called Servilius Geminus Pulex was disgusted by the political manoeuvrings and spoke in support of Paullus. To establish his authority and seniority, Servilius bared his upper body to display a mass of scars, and he singled out particular wounds and recounted how they had been received. The old warrior got carried away and his toga slipped down to expose his groin:

He accidentally uncovered what should have been kept concealed, and the swelling in his groin raised a laugh among the nearest spectators but Servilius retorted, “Yes, you laugh at this. I got this as well by sitting on my horse for days and nights on end, and I have no more shame or regret about this than about these wounds, since it never hindered me from successful service to the state either at home or abroad. I am a veteran soldier, and I have displayed before these young troops [i.e. the soldiers supporting Galba] this body of mine which has often been assailed by the sword. Now let Galba lay bare his smooth and unblemished body.”
Livy, 45.39.18–19

In the face of this extraordinary display, and with no scars or deeds of bravery to bolster his position, Galba’s motion was thrown out.

The virtus of men like Aquillius, Marius and Servilius was enhanced because they were the victors of single combats. As a young military tribune Marius fought a successful duel with a Celtiberian warrior at Numantia (134/3 BC). His triumph brought him to the attention of the great general Scipio Aemilianus (another famous Roman duellist), who encouraged him to pursue his ambition to be the leading man in Rome. Servilius was perhaps the most accomplished of all Roman duellists: “On 23 occasions I have challenged and fought an enemy. I brought back the spoils from every man with whom I engaged in single combat and I have a body decorated with honourable scars, all of them received in the front!” Such success linked men with the greatest of Roman heroes and demonstrated continuity with the glories of the past.

Romulus himself, the legendary founder of Rome, was believed to have killed Acron, king of Caenina, in single combat. The tradition maintained that Romulus dedicated the weapons and armour he stripped from Acron to Jupiter, king of the gods, in his guise as Feretrius, the bearer of trophies. The spoils taken from an enemy king killed by a Roman in single combat were known as spolia opima, the greatest spoils. Whatever the true origins of the custom (probably deriving from the folk memory that in the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries BC Roman leaders had fought in ‘battles of champions’ with the leading warriors of other Italic cities and tribes in order to settle disputes), it was a potent incentive for Roman bellatores (warriors) of the fifth to first centuries BC to be associated with a deed performed by Romulus.

The first historic example of the taking of the spolia opima occurred in 437 BC, when Cornelius Cossus, a military tribune, unhorsed Lars Tolumnius, king of Veii, at the battle of Fidenae. As the king struggled to get to his feet, Cossus leapt from his own horse, battered Tolumnius back to the ground with his shield, then repeatedly stabbed him with his lance until he was dead. Cossus proceeded to strip the king of his armour and decapitated him. The head was impaled on the end of Cossus’ lance, and he brandished it at the enemy cavalry, who were horrified and fled. Cossus dedicated the spoils to Jupiter Feretrius and they were still to be seen in the god’s temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome in 30 BC.

Cossus’ decapitation of Lars Tolumnius was probably a key element in the ritual of single combat. The famous single combat between Manlius Torquatus and a Gallic champion in c. 361 BC, culminated with the Gaul’s decapitation. One account of Claudius Marcellus’ duel with Viridomarus, king of the Gaesati (222 BC), tells of the Roman consul taking both the king’s armour and his head. Marcellus’ defeat of Viridomarus allowed him to dedicate the spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius. This dedication, and that of Cornelius Cossus, may then have included the heads of the defeated kings. Severed heads were certainly used to decorate victory monuments on battlefields. In 45 BC Julius Caesar’s men stacked the corpses and weapons of their enemies to form a tropaeum (trophy) and crowned it with heads impaled on spears and swords.

The spoils from ordinary single combats, and other prizes taken in battle, were customarily displayed on the doorposts of houses and in public rooms. The weapons and armour were inscribed with brief details of where and from whom they had been taken. Once set up the spoils could not be removed, even if the house passed into different ownership. The surviving Roman literary sources indicate that some displays of spolia lasted for centuries.

The symbolism of valour was of course most conspicuous on the field of battle. Roman warriors of all ranks went into combat in their best war gear; it is a common misconception that the most splendid armour was worn only by senior officers or reserved for parades.

When Licinius Lucullus won his famous victory at Tigranocerta in 69 BC, he had 24 cohorts, i.e. two under-strength legions and another four legionary cohorts, totalling 10,000 men. His combined force of cavalry, archers and slingers numbered only 1000. Ranged against Lucullus was the immense army of Tigranes, king of Armenia: 55,000 cavalry, 17,000 of which were heavily armoured cataphract lancers; 10,000 archers and slingers; 150,000 infantry, and 35,000 engineers, smiths and other specialists. No doubt these figures are hugely exaggerated but, nonetheless, Lucullus’ small army was massively outnumbered. Tigranes could not believe that the Romans would dare fight with so few men and quipped to his entourage, “If they come as ambassadors, they are too many; if they come as soldiers, they are too few!”

Lucullus marched on the enemy in line of battle. When a river obstructed his line of advance, the legionary cohorts wheeled into a column to make the crossing. Tigranes saw the Romans begin their manoeuvre and thought they were in the process of turning about. He poured scorn on them for retreating, but the Romans forded the river and came on, and his minister Taxiles, evidently knowledgeable in Roman battle customs, said to the king:

“When these men are merely on the march, they do not put on gleaming armour, nor have their shields polished and helmets uncovered, as they have now taken the leather covers from their armour. No, this splendour means they are going to fight, and are now advancing on their enemies.”
Plutarch, Lucullus, 27.5

And it was in the their splendour that Lucullus’ few warriors routed one wing of Tigranes’ horde and caused the rest of his soldiers to flee in panic.

Other examples make it clear that the splendour of Lucullus’ men was not exceptional. In his account of the battle of the Sabis (57 BC), Julius Caesar remarked that the surprise attack of the Belgae meant his men had no time to put on their usual insignia, meaning helmet crests, plumes which identified the wearer with the war god Mars (especially when worn on either side of the helmet), and military decorations such as torques, armlets, and embossed discs called phalerae. During the Munda campaign (45 BC), one of Caesar’s courageous centurions was killed while covering the retreat of some legionaries. He went to his death in full insignia and was despoiled by the enemy when he fell. During the same campaign, the aristocratic officers Pompeius Niger and Antistius Turpio advanced from their respective armies to fight a single combat ‘with their shields and battle decorations shining’. The hilts and scabbards of the swords and daggers of Caesar’s veteran legionaries were decorated with silver and gold. This was another symbol of their prowess; only victorious warriors who had despoiled their vanquished enemies and taken much plunder could afford such embellishment.

The ancient sources do occasionally reveal instances when commanders criticised the ostentation of their soldiers’ equipment, but the complaints were directed at those whose reputation for valour did not justify such finery, or when decoration came at the expense of practicality. The helmets of Lucullus’ and Caesar’s legionaries may have been highly burnished and crested, but they were always strong defensive pieces of bronze or iron.

Polybius, the Greek solider and historian, was a political prisoner in Rome in the mid-second century BC. He was fascinated by the martial character of his captors and wrote of how the continual retelling of tales about the heroism and great feats of ancestors made young Romans desperate to establish their own reputations. The scars, spoils and splendid war gear of living veterans were another reminder that the young had a duty to seek ‘the glory that waits upon the brave’, not only for themselves, but also for the glory it conferred on the Roman people as a whole. Many were killed or maimed in that pursuit, but it was the way of a warrior people and was a major factor in the process that led them to conquer much of the known world.

Originally published in Ancient Warfare. Click here for a pdf of the illustrated article.