Strictly speaking the Roman Empire lasted until 1453, when the last part of it was overrun by the Turks when they captured Constantinople. Certainly what we usually call the Byzantine Empire today called itself Roman, but by the end it was an empire in name only, and to many the Roman Empire proper ended when Rome itself was lost, during the fifth century. That certainly is the assumption made by this set of figures, for it depicts men of the fourth and fifth centuries, a period when the Empire was in steady decline and threatened by ever stronger external forces that it was unable to effectively handle.
Most aspects of ancient history are the subject of heated debate amongst scholars, and this is particularly true of the ‘late Roman’ army. Top of the list is to what extent the infantry wore armour. The arguments still rage and we do not intend adding to them, so we will just say that it is widely believed that many Roman legionaries wore armour by this period, although it seems likely that many did not. The sixth century Strategikon discusses the use of both armoured and unarmoured infantry, so both seem to have been common enough. Four of the poses in this set wear armour, three of which seem to be mail or scale, which are both correct. The fourth (the first figure in the second row) wears a muscle cuirass, presumably of metal or leather. Here is another controversy, namely how often if ever this item appeared outside the officer corps, so Italeri have trod a delicate line by including just one in the set, which seems wise. For the rest, they wear what would be described as a typical tunic, around knee length and with long sleeves. The decoration on such tunics seems remarkably standard at the time, and is depicted in many places as well as clearly shown on several surviving examples. Basically this was decorated borders, lozenges and round patches on the skirt, as shown on the box artwork, and Italeri have engraved these patterns on all the figures. However the designer has gone overboard with this and given every man a kind of yoke for which we could find absolutely no evidence. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of some form of decoration, but it is incorrect and the box artist is much closer to the truth than the figures themselves.
The men all wear trousers in the Celtic style (reaching the ankle, as they do today), but they could also have worn something akin to hose which would be tighter and also cover part of the foot. One man wears wrappings around his lower legs something like the modern puttees, which is reasonable.
If armour is controversial then helmets are less so. By this time Rome’s native soldiers wore a relatively simple two-piece helmet with a ridge in the middle, on which a crest might be attached. This helmet would normally have had a neck guard attached only by the lining, and side pieces for the ears. Almost all these figures have a helmet based on this model, and so all are perfectly correct. Some have a crest, which could be either stiffened horse hair (and so coloured) or simply another piece of metal. Five poses have such a crest, but these can easily be trimmed off if not wanted. One of the archers is bareheaded, and the other wears a Pannonian cap, which was very popular. All the headwear here is accurate and appropriate.
The men’s equipment all looks good too. All but the archers and the man with the standard are armed with a sword, and many have this in their hand. The position of the scabbards, on the left or right hip, seems to have varied in reality, and so it does here. Equally the choice between a baldric or a waist belt to support this is also reflected here, though naturally those with long mail coats are using the former. The two archers have good-looking bows but are otherwise unarmed, although we might have expected a knife somewhere. Most of the rest are using a spear, which is fine, and has been done in a realistic design. One man (last figure in the first row) is about to throw a speculum, which was the equivalent of the ancient pilum. Another has one of the darts or plumbata which some men carried on the inside of their shields. All the weapons are fine, but we were disappointed that no one is holding or using a javelin, which was another common weapon.
The last figure pictured above holds a common form of standard by the fourth century – the Draco. This was a windsock with a mouth shaped like a dragon’s head, and the sock was intended to billow out much like a flag. This Draco is nicely done, as is the figure, but having three in a set is overdoing it. Luckily the Draco can be trimmed off to leave a very useful marching figure with his spear on his shoulder, although it is a pity that for some strange reason this man has no sword. Also he holds his standard pole near the bottom, which would be very uncomfortable and make it difficult to control, especially with a shield in the other hand.
Of the ten poses holding a shield, nine are separate. This is almost always much the best way to depict such an object and it works well here. All the shields are flat and round, which is fine, and attach by a peg on the arm into the shield boss, creating a good close fit which is also strong, so does not even need gluing. All the shields are lightly engraved with a mixture of designs that all match examples depicted in a document known as the Notitia Dignitatum, and while the accuracy of this, and the later copies, is also controversial, this is our best source for such designs and so is a fair choice. While the designs are fine, any given unit in the Roman army would be identifiable chiefly by their common shield design, so each design here is for a different unit, meaning they would not have fought together like this. Luckily, painting will soon obscure the engraving with whatever pattern the customer requires. A much bigger problem however is the manner in which these shields are being held. Most sources suggest the shield was held by a central hand grip behind the boss, but in all cases the shields in this set are held by threading the arm through two straps. A few modern reconstructions do show this method of holding the shield, but it is hard to know whether this is correct. Another one for the ‘controversial’ pile, but we do not like this choice.
On the poses in general we thought there was little to complain about here, although only having 12 is something of a bare minimum for a general infantry set these days. The men are using their swords and spears in a believable way and mostly holding their shield in an equally realistic manner. Exception one is the third figure in the top row, who is holding his shield out straight, meaning it is getting in the way of his colleagues but doing nothing to protect him, and tiring his arm at the same time. Exception two is the second figure in the second row, who is committing that often seen yet very annoying mistake of holding his spear directly over the mid-line of his head, which requires his right arm to be in a physically impossible position and is no more than laziness on the part of the sculptor, creating a flat pose that is never good and is particularly disappointing in a set of this quality.
We can say nothing against the quality of the sculpting here, which is terrific on all counts. Clothes fold naturally, men’s expressions are, well, expressive, and proportions are perfect everywhere. Detail on such things as the mail is exemplary, and there is no flash or ugly extra plastic anywhere, while the shields are a perfect fit, so top marks there.
By this period infantry were mainly a defensive formation, and it was the cavalry that was supposed to be the decisive battle-winners. Being defensive the infantry essentially formed a shield wall and fought from behind that, and some of the poses here would serve in that role, but we would have liked more so something like the excellent box artwork could be reproduced. The inclusion of a couple of missile troops is good, but a couple more of the poses wearing armour would have been a good idea too in our opinion. Still, while we have some reservations about the tunics and a couple of the poses, this is still a really nice set that could have been better designed but could not have been better executed.