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Wikipedia says

By the end of the 3rd century the rectangular scutum seems to have disappeared.

Why did the rectangular scutum design fall out of use? Why was the shield design not commonly used by anyone else later in history?

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It is interesting to note that Trajan's column features both scutum and rounded shields fighting side by side. –  user357320 Jul 5 '13 at 14:36
As illustrated below, modern riot police use virtually identical equipment, albeit in modern materials, as Republican Roman legionnaires. And why not; they are again an outnumbered professional heavy infantry unit fighting a barbarian horde. –  Pieter Geerkens Aug 9 '13 at 4:06
@PieterGeerkens very interesting observation! –  Lohoris Nov 14 '13 at 15:19

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In the early days of rome (kingdom and early republic) large oval shields were used and heavy roman infantry fought in the manner of hoplites. Around 300BC the Roman army changed into the form we recognise, adopting changing from phalanxs to a manipular structure. The Roman heavy infantry adopted the scutum. Oddly enough by the 3rd century oval shields had come back into use.

I don't believe the Testudo formation dictated what shields were used by Roman infantry. It was a very specialised formation with many weaknesses. Given the Roman track record of innovation and their doctrine of tactical flexibility it seems unlikely that their shield choice would be beholden to one of the many tricks in their vast playbook. The whole idea of their early abandonment of phalanx in favour of a manipular structure, which coincided with a change of shield, was to increase this flexibility. There is evidence from Polybius1 that the shield was adapted from a oval to rectangular shield used by the Samnites (one of their early Italic rivals), so it must have had real combat advantages outside of the Testudo.

Why did the oval/rectangular shied lose it's appeal then? There was another change to Roman infantry equipment that happened during the late 2nd and early 3rd century. The sword in general use changed from the short Gladius to the longer Spatha. A longer weapon would have changed the ergonomics and tactics of combat, leading to a change in shield type. The Spatha was a more "cut and thrust" and was used as an auxilary type weapon in the 1st century and was also adopted into Germanic use. This was about the time of the loss of a professional core after the Constitutio Antoniniana and the removal of the elite legions special equipment and status. It seems reasonable to say that Roman infantry adopting auxiliary-style weapons (this shield and obviously auxiliary-style sword) was part of this process of the Roman army becoming dominated by the equipment and tactics of the Auxiliaries.

1: it's all behind paywalls of couse: Polybius (VI, 23 2-3), http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2041-5370.1998.tb01700.x/abstract, http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Vpf9fI2NU4oC&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=polybius+roman+shield+Samnite&ots=yA-QDqY5kC&sig=Ov8AWex1gqG_tB4m2XK-aXJxHlE#v=onepage&q=samnite&f=false

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one other consideration for adopting the rectangular shield may have been ease of manufacture. Rectangular shapes are easier to create in most materials than ovals, making mass production easier. I fail to recollect exactly when the Romans changed from citizen soldiery where each soldier purchased and maintained his own equipment to state supplied equipment, but this (and the associated mass production) may well have influenced the design of that equipment (production methods often influence product design to this date). –  jwenting Apr 19 '13 at 9:14
@jwenting I believe it's Marian reforms you're referencing. Good point about mass production. I would be fascinated if anyone knows more about the Constitutio-Antoniniana/ polybian and marian periods who could clarify (or debunk) this proposed link between changes in army organisation and changes in equipment. –  Nathan Cooper Apr 19 '13 at 17:11

To answer the original question, I believe the Scutum did not completely fall out of use until the fall of the empire its self. Throughout the centuries of use, both 'core' heavy infantry Legionaries AND the Auxiliaries used oval shields of various sizes. A comment above noted the move away from the short stabbing Gladius, in favour of the longer Spatha, this was undoutably easier to wield with a lighter, more easily manouvered shield.

However, when it comes down to it, the Scutum was a tool used by highly trained heavy infantry fighting in line based formations. Training included how to "punch" with it, how to run at the charge with it, and how to manoeuvre with it. With the decline of the empire, the reduced standing of the Legions, and perhaps a reduced emphasis on training, plus the ease of use and construction of the "old style" oval shield brought about its decline.

Certainly the Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Franks and other western European successors to the empire often still fought in line, with various round, oval and kite shaped shields, but with thrusting spears, pikes and even long hafted war axes, cut and thrust swords longer than the Gladius being a symbol of a wealthy warrior, so without the short stabbing sword no Scutum ?

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If you can add a few sources I'm sure you'll collect a good few upvotes. –  Kobunite Nov 14 '13 at 10:46

The rectangular scutum shield was favored by Roman legionaries because it allows for the Testudo formation, a very powerful defense from arrows and horses that still allowed for some movement.

The reason it fell out of use is because it required a very high amount of training and synchronization between your team to use the Testudo formation. This was not a problem for the Romans because there citizens trained to be in the military from a very young age. But as the Roman empire grew with size and wealth less of it is citizens wanted to join the army and the army had to turn to mercenaries who were not trained to use this formation and so it quickly fell out of use to round and kite shields.

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So are you actually arguing that the testudo was superseded in the imperial period? This doesn't seem to be true. Also, which "mercenaries" are you referring to? The armies of the empire, until, say, the 5th century, were professional - but certainly not mercenary. I am downvoting for now but upon clarification will be happy to remove the downvote. –  Felix Goldberg Apr 18 '13 at 14:45
@FelixGoldberg Maybe you are not familiar with mercenaries, but they compliment your army not replace them. Today it is a multi-billion dollar industry and none of the countries that use them have replaced them with their army. And I never mentioned anything about the imperial period because that is a long period of time, I meant the period between 3rd century to 5th century when the shield went out of use. Also added a link in my post to prove that mercenaries were in heavy use during that time period. –  Caesar Apr 18 '13 at 19:54
Indeed, I am not familiar with mercenaries in the sense that none of my acquaintances have served in foreign armies for money. But I do know the usual definition of the term - one who offers his military services to the highest bidder, without any special underlying allegiance. So, please indicate what mercenaries served in the Roman army... –  Felix Goldberg Apr 19 '13 at 16:36
@FelixGoldberg I'm getting the feeling that you have no experience with Roman History and it is decline and are just commenting from the hack of it. If you want some reading materials on the subject I would recommend The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or atleast read the wikipedia page on it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  Caesar Apr 19 '13 at 16:52
Okay, let's order this. You're speaking about foederati (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foederati) and citing ternary sources who just call them @mercenaries@ which is a vast oversimplification. To wit: there was no market for mercenary services in which the various tribes could have offered their services; rather they arrived at the Roman borders (or, sometimes, the borders arrived at them) and had to find some accomodation with the empire. Contrast this with, say, bona fide Greek mercenaries of the 4th century BCE who served various states and often switched employers. –  Felix Goldberg Apr 19 '13 at 17:49

Permanently fell out of use you say? As soon as one needs the same tactics, one needs the same design of shields and a similar kind of training.

Here Kyrgyzstan riot police doing what they call a "turtle" with rectangular shields:


and those are Italian Carabineri doing the same:


Now compare that to the classical depiction of roman "testudo formation".


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I think what he means is the use in conventional battles –  Louis Rhys Apr 18 '13 at 16:34

Even on the period of Hadrian and his reforms many soldiers used rounded shields. Scutum probably disappeared when tactics it was used for faded from legionaries training during the civil wars of the 3rd century. Another reason, perhaps, in the massive use of auxiliaries, with different tactics, poor discipline and simple equipment.

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Good conjectures - but we need sources.... –  Felix Goldberg Apr 18 '13 at 14:45

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