Standard ancient Roman uniform consisted of a tunic, a cloak and sandal-type boots, resulting in a look like this. Now, this is all very well for Mediterranean climates but I really cannot fathom how they got along with this clothing in Northern Europe (Germania, Britannia, Northern Gaul, etc.). Was there another type of uniform more suitable to cold climates?

I know there is a theory that the temperatures were then higher than today but at least the article I've linked to talks about a difference of 1 degree Celsius - not enough to make one warm and cozy in a tunic on a cold North European winter day.

So what was the Romans' trick? Were they supermen or something?

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    Seems the "look like this" weblink is down/unreachable. – Apoorv Khurasia Jun 21 '13 at 13:21

They were not supermen by any means :)
But yes, temperatures were higher, by more than 1 degree (Kent and Wales were famous for their wines, right now it's far too cold there for that for example).
And don't forget that in the Roman era, wars were fought in summer almost exclusively, later expanding into spring and autumn as the conscript army was replaced by a professional one. The reasons for this are in large part practical.

  1. winter would not support an army on the move with food from pillaging, hunting, and purchasing in the area it passes through, back then there were no supply trucks and aircraft bringing in food and supplies from the rear hundreds of miles away like we do now.
  2. troops were mostly farmers initially, campaigns used to start after the fields were planted in spring and ended again before the autumn harvest so people could be home in time to bring in the crops. This later became less and less a factor as the army was professionalised and troops no longer drafted from the general population but drawn from a permanent cadre of paid and maintained troops.
  3. autumn and spring conditions would have turned large areas into boggy marshes, impossible for a large force on foot (with some hand- or animal drawn carts with heavy equipment) to traverse. The terrible suffering in the trenches in WW1 is in part caused by ignoring this, armies to this day have trouble fighting in spring and autumn on the European plains because of the mud.

I have seen pictures of Roman troops along Hadrian's wall (where there were permanently manned bases) wearing wool and fur cloaks, trousers, and boots similar to what the locals would wear. The Romans were pragmatists if anything, and were never afraid to adopt local customs if they made sense to them (similarly, Romans were quick to welcome foreign gods into their religion, as long as those gods were not those of monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity which claimed all other gods to be false and were thus a threat to the Roman state which relied like so many on the divinity of their rulers (especially during the imperial era, during the republic they afaik were merely endorsed by the temples rather than claiming to be divine themselves)).

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    Where did you see those pictures? I want to see them too! – Felix Goldberg Jan 31 '13 at 9:29
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    history books we used in school I think. Having been taught Latin we probably had more history on the Romans than most people get :) Quick search turned up romanarmy.net/coldweather.htm though which has information similar to what I remember from 25-30 years ago. – jwenting Jan 31 '13 at 11:09
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    Generally a good answer (so +1), but I highly doubt those pictures you saw were taken conteporaniously. :-) – T.E.D. Jan 31 '13 at 15:30
  • yes, I seriously doubt that. In fact I seriously doubt any quality drawings (let alone photographs) of Roman troops from that era survive, what LARP players wear AFAIK is more akin to what troops in the late eastern empire had, from which more was preserved. – jwenting Jan 31 '13 at 16:31
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    they were considered demi-gods, sons of Jupiter. Hence anyone threatening the gods threatened the power of the emperor, and with it the legitimacy of the empire. – jwenting Feb 1 '13 at 7:01

http://www.romanarmy.net/coldweather.htm Seems to address cold weather clothing very well. It seems they did what we did, scarfs, multiple layers, hats, enclosed boots etc but with the exception of trousers, which they saw as barbarian. They went for lower leg coverings instead. I would point out these guys seem to manage without trousers.

Except actually some of them did wear trousers as well because it's usual for armies to incorporate local gear into their kit. The Romans were also quite good at using foreign ideas, their spanish swords (Gladius) being an example, the interesting part of their cold weather gear is how they didn't really do that with trousers.

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  • I can't find any great links about Roman attitudes to trousers, but I will point at that in the fifth century Emperor Honorius actually banned them for being barbarian. – Nathan Cooper Jan 31 '13 at 15:12
  • see my answer, I posted the same link :) – jwenting Jan 31 '13 at 19:49
  • @NathanCooper sure, so this is what shows up when you Google for "Roman winter uniforms", but is there any reason to treat it as more trustworthy than any random site? – Drux Jan 31 '13 at 20:10
  • @Drux, no, in fact it's quite badly cited. Not a great link to use. Oh well. – Nathan Cooper Feb 1 '13 at 16:19
  • Osprey publishing seem to do books on Roman Military Clothing, but there's nothing to link to and they seem a bit basic. – Nathan Cooper Feb 1 '13 at 16:37

Wikipedia to the rescue: This article on caligae (military boots) states that

Socks were not normally worn with caligae, although in colder climates such as Britain, woolen socks were used.

This one on Roman military personal equipment mentions that

[The sagum and the paenula] were made from wool, which insulated and also contained natural oil to repel water ... The paenula was hooded in colder climates.

I further imagine that individual soldiers (and their leaders) could be pragmatic about adding other garments or furs for extra protection when available and needed. Maybe our stereotypical picture of Roman soldiers in tunics and boots stems partly from Roman re-enactment societies, which probably prefer sunny days for their activities; and who could blame them :)

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  • But no mention ever of pants? – Felix Goldberg Jan 31 '13 at 9:27
  • Well, it seems there were braccae (woolen trousers) and even subligaria (underpants :) – Drux Jan 31 '13 at 9:59
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    breaches rather than what we now call pants, which would have been known to locals in harsher climates than middle to southern Italy. And do remember large numbers of auxiliary troops were drawn from tribes and later cities in the territories (especially after those'd be officially provinces rather than colonies). – jwenting Jan 31 '13 at 11:14

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