Panel 9.1 – The production of military equipment – fabricae, private production and more


  • Stefanie Hoss (Universität zu Köln)

Panel abstract

The production of military equipment is a subject that has advanced much less in the last thirty years since Mike Bishops article in 1985 than one would have thought from the amount of new finds made and new research methods developed during that period. This is especially striking when compared to the advances made in the research on civilian production in the same time. Most research on military production is either concerned with production for the military centring on grain and meat (where large advances have been made) or with production by the military centring on tile production.

The fact that the soldiers owned at least those parts of their equipment that had to confirm to their body measurements (helmet, armour, sword, sword-belt) and the horsemen also owned the horses and their equipment is proven by various written sources. Other implements, such as the tents or the catapults, were owned by larger units, such as the contubernium or the legion. Which influence did these different systems of ownership have on the production of these objects?

Another consideration is the difference in the products: The production of a shield is much different from that of a sword and that again differs from the production an arrow. Could these differences in production have influenced the manner of production?

Because of several forth century literary sources, the famous fabricae are often seen as the only source of military equipment. But the mere word is already a problem: Do we really mean the workshops found in forts and legionary fortresses? The buildings often named as such within the fortress walls have such widely differing sizes and forms that one is left with the impression that any building without another obvious function is named fabrica by the excavators, regardless whether there is any true evidence for metalworking or not.

But perhaps, fabricae means something else entirely, namely the large – large as in industrial - production sites often situated in the hinterland of the garrison like the production site of the legio Prima Minerva at the Bonner Berg or the Sheepen site less than a kilometre from Camulodunum.

Paper abstracts

1. Stefanie Hoss (University of Cologne)

Military equipment: an overview of different production systems for different times, places and items
When looking into the production of military equipment, we have to consider the size of the army and the variability of the territories it was spread out on – both in terms of the development of surplus production and the availability of craftsmen. In addition, the development that must have taken place over the four hundred years between Augustus’ reforms that turn the legions into professional standing armies and Late Antiquity has to be taken into account.
A final consideration is the difference in the products: The production of a shield is much different from that of a sword belt and that again differs from the production of a sword. The result of these considerations is the realization that there could not have been one model, one system or one ‘grand plan’. Production probably varied according to both need and possibilities.
In my paper, I would like to give an overview of what we know about the production of different kinds of Roman military equipment, both on the level of the individual fort or fortress as well as the underlying systems of supply.

The purpose of this session is to collect what we do know and work towards terra incongnita from there. We thus invite papers that present productions sites or production systems for military equipment from all over the Roman Empire.


2. Astrid Lindenlauf

Necessity is the Mother of Invention: The use of improptu offensive and defensive weapons in Greek warfare
Centaurs are often portrayed as wild and untamed creatures in Greek art and literature that would pick fights with Greek heroes. Owing to their lack of military equipment, they are forced to use impromptu weapons, that is artefacts and ecofacts that were readily available and that can be used to either distract or cause damage. In close-range combats with Greek heroes centaurs are seen to be employing unusual weapons such as tree branches, thymiateria, metal and clay vases, or even potsherds. In the ideal world of images, Greeks required proper metal arms to distinguish themselves in warfare, but textual sources acknowledge the occasional use of impromptu offensive and defensive weapons in actual historic battles. In this paper, I explore the range of artefacts and ecofacts that might temporarily serve as weapons in Greek warfare. Which instinctive choices did Greek soldiers make in times of crisis? Why, how and to what extent did they align themselves with creatures beyond the realms of civilized order such as centaurs? What was the impact of social conventions, perceptions of value and everyday praxis? The aim of my paper is to gain a better understanding of the creative uses of inexpensive, free or readily available resources and objects at times of need. I argue that both real and imaginary practices of appropriation and temporary transformation were deeply influenced by everyday practices of recycling.


3. Leida van Hees

The tools of production
The production of military equipment could not be realised without the access to proper tools. Tools generally can only be used for certain materials and tasks. The exact shape of a tool often allows its original purpose to be determined. For example the space between the teeth on a file may show whether it was used for wood or metal, and while hair scrapers and certain knives may both be used on leather their purposes serve different parts of the production process. Research into tools found at a site can therefore shed light on the production of a large range of items. The personal military equipment of soldiers consisted mainly of leather and metal. Metal and leatherworking tools found at a site may therefore provide insight into the production of military equipment.
Albaniana, a fort and vicus of the limes of the western Netherlands, was located far from the production centres of the Roman Empire. It must have been impossible for its inhabitants to exclusively rely on import for the military equipment they needed. Over 200 tools for different materials and purposes were found at the site, allowing the soldiers to produce and repair many items themselves. Among these tools are those used for metals and leather, many of which were found inside the fort’s fabrica. In my paper I will present the tools and other clues of crafts executed in Albaniana in order to obtain a better understanding of how well the soldiers were equipped to produce and repair their own equipment.


4. Martijn A. Wijnhoven (VU University Amsterdam)

Workshop traditions: A long-term look at military equipment production
As any craftsman will tell, there are many different ways of making an artefact. The steps a craftsman takes and the tools he uses are often the result of an (implicit) workshop tradition, which translates into slight differences in the end products.
Using mail armour production as a case-study, this paper takes an artefact-based approach aimed at showing that apparently insignificant variations may in fact be a rich source of information on how military equipment was manufactured, when analysed in a comparative long-term perspective.
Taking a closer look at the collective archaeological evidence of mail armour between 300 BC – AD 1000 (i.e. from its invention until the High Middle Ages) allows us to appreciate changes in workshop traditions over time. A particular feature of mail, ‘the direction of the overlap’, is used in this case to compare production processes through the ages. I will discuss how this simple attribute: 1) can aid to distinguish the Roman from the Barbaricum mail making tradition; and 2) reveals whether the Roman workshop tradition persisted into the medieval period.


5. Vince Van Thienen

State control, regionality or guidelines? The production of the crossbow brooch
Many debates on the production of military metal items, such as brooches, often focus on the aspect of control by the Roman state or military on the one hand or on the regional differences across the provinces on the other hand. Research on both object and context information on the crossbow brooch, a significant Late Roman military symbol all across the Empire, has uncovered that it does not always have to be one or the other. Uniformity plays a major role in many military equipment, but as do stylistic differences tied to a certain identity, be it personal, unit-based, geographical or other. The changes and similarities in the production of the crossbow brooch through time form a good example in showing that not only the objects and their social context undergo changes, but that the production techniques and production systems change subsequent to new socio-political requirements and Empire-wide military infrastructure. This paper wishes to illustrate that the fabrica conceptually can be seen as a fluid production environment, as changeable by the larger transformations in the Roman Empire as the objects themselves. Recent research has uncovered that, instead of regarding uniformity contrast to variation, that standardization is present in the shape of the brooch, while maintaining stylistic freedoms in the decorative details. The degree of standardization or variation allows us to investigate the different ways in which production of the brooch was organized.