It is my understanding that the plate armor manufactured in the time after the fall of Rome was far inferior to anything that the Romans used in their legions. (Of course, if I am wrong on any of this feel free to correct me)

I'm wondering if any of this armor was used by any military or other forces in the Dark Ages (early middle ages), and if not, what happened to it? Surely the number of soldiers equipped in this armor would ensure that at least one group utilized the remains left behind by the Empire? Or was it simply left in the dirt or deep in some vault somewhere, waiting to be discovered by historians later on?

  • 42
    How long do you think a piece of armor lasts?
    – MCW
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 1:31
  • 58
    I think there's a fundamental problem with the premise, here. You seem to be assuming that one day, there was a fully functioning imperial army and then, the next day, the empire disappeared, leaving armour neatly stacked on the barracks shelves. It wasn't like that. Commented May 15, 2018 at 11:53
  • 15
    Additionally, you're assuming the forces that remained in Europe had use for Roman-style weaponry and armour. The Romans relied on large amounts of highly disciplined heavy infantry troops. This simply wasn't how people fought in the "early middle ages" - indeed, it would have been a huge waste of training and manpower. Rather than large standing armies, feudal lords had relatively small warbands and raised levies when necessary. With a few exceptions, that wouldn't much change until almost the Renaissance (though there was a gradual increase over time).
    – Luaan
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 19:35

3 Answers 3


I would dispute your claim that Roman armour was superior. Roman armour mostly consisted of a mail shirt of varying length and quality, not dissimilar to that of the germanic tribes that overran the empire.

There were heavier, full-body suits, especially used by their cataphract cavalry, made from scale and lamellar, even covering the horses. However, that was very expensive to manufacture and maintain. And that was copied from similar armour used by a number of peoples further East.

You may be confused by the popular image of the lorica segmentata, made from bands of metal, that was used by the Romans from the 1st to the 3rd centuries. Its use ended before the end of the empire, and even throughout that period simple mail shirts were common.

Your reference to plate armour is also out of sync – it was developed in the West from about the 13th century, well after the fall, and quickly became far superior to anything the Romans produced. Even the full-length mail suits it replaced provided better protection than the average legionnaire's armour.

  • 3
    How do the heroic cuirasses fit into this? Were they actually ever worn as an armor in the field, or were they merely used decoratively? And would they count as early instances of plate armor?
    – Schmuddi
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 16:54
  • 3
    Indeed, the armour only needed to be as strong as necessary - the additional expense and weight wouldn't have made much of an improvement in the battles the Romans found themselves fighting in their decline. The eastern empire, on the other hand, used both mail and scale, and the officers even used cuirasses, just like in the earlier times.
    – Luaan
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 19:44
  • @Schmuddi In the Roman army, they were mostly used by officers and some cavalry. It's hard to tell how effective they would be - they were certainly used against different weapons than the later medieval plate armour, and wouldn't have fared very well against those. Even against swords and javelins, they would have some trouble - they don't have the right shape to deflect blows, and not a lot of volume for padding, it seems. But that wasn't necessarily a problem the way Romans usually fought.
    – Luaan
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 19:53
  • 4
    @Schmuddi, I think there is some debate about whether bronze cuirasses are superior to mail, possibly in some circumstances or against certain weapons. But even if bronze was better, there is no question that it is many times more expensive, so much so that it would be uneconomic to equip the rank and file. Commented May 15, 2018 at 21:43

Roman Empire did not fall suddenly. This was a slow process which lasted centuries. And there is no sharp edge between antiquity and dark ages. The period of decline was much longer than a normal service life of any arms. And there is no sharp distinction between the forces of the Empire and "Dark age forces". Many barbarians who destroyed the empire were formally serving the Empire.

EDIT. There are many good books describing this slow and complicated process in detail, beginning with Gibbons' classics which is still not too out of date. Of the modern books I can recommend

B. Ward-Perkins, The fall of Rome and the end of civilization,

Adrian Goldthworthy, Fall of the West. Slow death of the Roman superpower.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather

The Roman empire started hiring barbarians long before its decline. Not only individuals but whole tribes were hired. The arrangements for settling barbarian tribes on its territory also began long before the final fall. In 212 AD Roman citizenship was extended to the whole population of the Empire. Gradually the sharp distinction between the Romans and barbarians disappeared.

  • 5
    "Formally" or "Formerly" on the Empire's service? I can't claim any direct knowledge, but "formally" seems odd. Commented May 15, 2018 at 14:18
  • 10
    @user29478 both, as example, the goths were not only used as mercenaries, they were also a prominent part of the armies of the north of italy and france.
    – CptEric
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 14:47
  • 11
    @user29478: Formally. They were hired. And called themselves Roman generals.
    – Alex
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 19:36
  • 5
    @Kamil Drakari: yes, "various circumstances". Neither the Romans nor the barbarians had an aim of "destroying the empire". Barbarians wanted territory inside the empire, but they did not want to destroy the empire. And they fought other barbarians for the territory.
    – Alex
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 19:46
  • 8
    @KamilDrakari Not to mention that they didn't seem to have much of a choice - it seems that Romans kind of lost their warrior culture, and people just didn't find the idea of fighting wars all that appealing; unlike the germanic tribes they hired. And Odoacer, who deposed the last western emperor, didn't really consider himself as the destroyer of the empire; in fact, he cooperated with the still existing Roman senate. He didn't claim the title emperor - rather, he seems to have considered his "Kingdom of Italy" a client state of the Eastern empire.
    – Luaan
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 19:59

Well maintained armor can last for a very long time. But within limits, due to normal wear and tear. I can't give you any particular length, but you can safely assume anything from 30 up to maybe 70 years. Why? Because recruits sometimes bought second hand armor from retiring evocati, of inherited it from their father if he had served in the legions.

The Lorica segmentata was retired in the late 3rd century. It gave good protection, but was maintenance intensive, and difficult to repair. (The copper parts reacted to the steel.)

By the end of the Roman empire lorica segmentata was already out of use for well over a century. The armor of the Romans was about the same as that of their opponents.

  • 1
    Ouch, so it kind of has a galvanic self-destruct mechanism built in? ;) Commented May 15, 2018 at 23:03
  • 5
    @rackandboneman, <smile> No, I used common sense. Roman legionaries almost always wore their armor from getting up to getting down. Running in it, fighting in it, maintaining it. Eventually, that will wear armor out. It'll take some time, but it will.
    – Jos
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 23:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.