Literally, scutum means “shield” (pl. scuta). It was an oval shield, and then a rectangular shield, used to parry blows, which was a constant inventory of Roman soldiers from the 5th century BCE until the end of the 3rd century CE, when the use of rectangular shields ceased, and they became oval or round.
In early Rome, Roman soldiers were armed like Greek hoplites, which could also be partly due to Etruscan influence in Rome. In their equipment was a round shield – clipeus – which was smaller than the later scutum.
In the 4th century CE, it was decided to move away from Hoplite tactics in favor of a manipular system that required changes in armaments. Reforms are attributed to the legendary Marcus Furius Camillus during the First or Second Samnite War (343-341 or 327-304 BCE).
Polybius gives a fairly accurate description1 of scutum from the 2nd century BCE. In his time the shield was made of two layers thin boards arranged alternately like a stave and glued with beef glue. The whole was covered with cloth and leather. A fusiform reinforcement extending through the center of the dial expanding in the central part. At this point, the shield was additionally reinforced with an iron or bronze umb (so-called banded), called a “tumor” or “navel”.
Polybius gives thanks to the fitting of the center, the shield in close combat served as an offensive weapon allowing “to push” on the opponent. It should be noted that the “tumor” was also supposed to take blows at the most sensitive point of the shield, and at the same time cover the hand directly behind it. The top and bottom of the shield were iron. At the back, at the height of the umba, there was a recess and a horizontal dipstick, which could be hugged. On the surface of the shield, to decorate, various figures and emblems were painted, for example, silhouettes of animals (eagles), laurel wreaths or a lightning symbol. Lightning was a common motif appearing on shields – the symbol of Jupiter or the wings that symbolized the goddess of victory Nike.
The scutum shield was large enough to cover the entire legionary’s torso and slightly convex, which in turn meant that the opponent’s blows slid down the uneven surface.
An example of an oval shield is found – from the time of Caesar – a shield in Egypt (the so-called scutum of Fayum)2, which was made of three layers of boards and was covered with felt of sheep’s wool. It also had a longitudinal spindle reinforcement that survived until the end of the 1st century BCE.
In the second half of the first century CE the shield underwent the first stage of transformation. Top and bottom of the shield cut off. The new scutum – in the shape of a rectangle – appeared not earlier than 40-50 CE The shield consisted of three layers of boards connected by beef glue, from the outside it was additionally covered with a layer of canvas and calf skin. The shield was also made of three thin layers of wood 2 mm thick, which were then properly formed to obtain a convex shape of the shield. As in the earlier version, a metal rim ran around the edges of the shield, protecting it from blows. The characteristic shape allowed putting the shield on the ground.
The only shield of this type preserved to this day (from Dura-Europos in Syria) was 105.5 cm high, 41 cm wide, 30 cm deep (due to the convex shape) and 5-6 mm thick. Her weight was between 6 and 7 kg. It is generally accepted that scutum weighed up to 10 kg.
Of the Roman legionnaires’ equipment, scutum was the most prominent feature and constituted their primary protective armament. Walkers carried her in her left hand during the fight, hung it on her back with a thong around her neck. To protect her from the rain, scutum was kept during the march in a special goat or cowhide cover.
Praetorians wore an oval shield from republic times, for example during ceremonies. During the fight, they used rectangular shields, just like legionaries. The auxilia troops wore a round shield.
The most spectacular and associated with the Roman shield is a curtain in the form of the so-called turtle (testudo) protecting against javelins and fire from bows, slingshots, etc. The turtle was used in defensive operations and offensive. He was perfect on the battlefield as well as during the siege and storming of enemy buildings.
There is a known case described by Tacitus, when during the second battle of Bedriacum (69 CE) two legionaries took the shields of fallen opponents and got under the cover of night to camp to destroy the catapult.
At the turn of the second and third century CE, scutum was out of use and replaced with a new type of oval shield that survived until the decline and fall of the empire. Such shields were already in the equipment of auxiliary wards (auxiliares). They were flat and oval in outline. They had metal fittings and umbo. Such shields appear on the Trajan column showing auxiliary units. Most often they referred to zoomorphic or floral and geometric patterns that testified to the barbaric origin of auxilliary units.