The subtitle for this set highlights the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, where a whole Roman army was famously annihilated by an alliance of Germanic tribes. For the modeller, any interest in this battle is heightened by the fact that is comes during the reign of Augustus, and so fits between the Republican era and the classic Imperial era of the later first century CE, when the ‘traditional’ Roman soldier in segmented armour developed. Both these eras are well covered with figures, but this set is one of the first for the very early imperial period.
As you might expect, the look of these men is something between the Republican and later imperial periods. Starting with the helmet, all have the correct helmet of the time, termed a Coolus type, with forehead reinforcement and long rear ‘peak’ to protect the neck. Certainly other helmets were in use at this time and perhaps at this very battle, but that applies to most military items at any point in time, especially in the ancient world, and the Coolus would be perfectly typical and so appropriate here. Where visible all here seem to wear mail armour, which is thought to be the most common during this period. Again other armours would also be acceptable, but for this set at least the typical appearance has been captured. The style of this armour is fine, but several wear a garment over the armour, effectively shielding it from our gaze. This garment would be leather or fabric, and for protection, but to protect the armour from the elements rather than the wearer from harm, since mail is very hard to keep clean. The men all have twin waist belts, holding a sword on the right hip and a dagger on the left – the usual arrangement for the time. They all also have the ‘apron’ of strips studded with metal plates covering the groin. Of particular interest is that all wear fabric coverings, a bit like puttees, strapped to their lower leg. This was to protect the leg, and was also worn by civilians, but this is the first time we have seen it worn on figures of Roman soldiers. How common this was is impossible to say, but it was certainly known, so it would be reasonable to see it, especially at these relatively northerly latitudes, and on a campaign well-known for having very wet and stormy weather. Another fascinating feature is that every man has something bound round his lower sword arm. Again this is not something you usually see, and seems to be an improvised protection based on a long strap round a piece of cloth, a little like some gladiators might have. Again it is impossible to say how common this practice was, but this and the other remarked elements make these figures seem more natural and realistic than the usual offerings, which generally display such men in entirely regulation, and perhaps somewhat too perfect, attire.
The last pictured figure is of a centurion. His rank is easily discerned by the transverse crest on his Coolus helmet, which is richly decorated unlike the men’s. Other obvious marks of rank include the phalerea discs just visible on his chest, the metal greaves on the legs and the fact that his sword and dagger are on the opposite sides to the men. He too seems to wear a covering over his armour, and under his armour his wears what is often called a subarmale, of which only the pteryges (strips) are visible at the bottom. Also apparent is the binding round his lower sword arm, like the men.
All the men have their gladius sword of course, and two also still have a pilum – the Roman spear that could be used like a javelin or, as here in the second row, as a close-combat weapon. Of special note are the two men in the bottom row who have their weapons sheathed and are using pick-axes (dolabrae) instead, which were normal issue and used just as they might be today, particularly in the construction of an overnight camp. The shields carried by all the men are again typical of the period, being slightly curved and with curved sides but cut straight at top and bottom – a shape that would develop into the deeply curved and rectangular shield. All are held by a horizontal bar in the centre, and all have a central boss. The man marching (first figure, last row) has his in a cover, and this has a separate section to cover the boss. That of the centurion is more rectangular, which would seem perfectly reasonable.
Half the poses in this set have drawn their gladius sword, and are using it in the required fashion (stabbing rather than slashing). We usually wince when we seen a sword held over the head like the second figure in our top row, because this is usually directly over the head and anatomically impossible. Here however the sword is actually somewhat to the right of the head, making it far more believable. The other swordsmen are mainly thrusting from behind their shield, as they should be, although we particularly liked the first man in the second row, who is falling backwards as if from a blow – an unusual and very convincing casualty pose. The third man in that row is using his pilum as a spear, and despite seeming to hold it well behind the centre of gravity this is in fact correct. He holds his shield high, as does one of the swordsmen, which in this context might be as he is protecting himself from an enemy on higher ground. Our eighth pictured man appears to be hurling a rock, and since he still has his gladius in its scabbard, this must be because he is desperately trying to harm an enemy out of reach, and has no more pila to do this (although Romans were trained to throw rocks on occasion anyway). The first man in the bottom row is on the march, and is fine except that he holds his pilum above the expansion, on the metal portion, which contradicts the normal position seen on so many tombstones and other ancient depictions, though not of course impossible. The two men with pick-axes could be constructing the camp as we have said, and the Centurion figure is advancing with suitable menace.
Some of these poses might seem strange, but they have to be considered in terms of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest itself. These poses do not lend themselves to any sort of normal infantry formation, and usually that would be a problem, but as the running ambushes continued to reduce the army of Varus, the narrow forest track meant they could not operate in the manner they were trained for, which is exactly why the Germanic tribesmen felt they could defeat them. On the very last day, the remnants of the army found themselves facing a rampart constructed by their attackers, and were forced to assault it. So their enemy was above them, and in trying to occupy and dismantle this barricade some of the infantry attacked it with the very pick-axes we see here. This was not an ordinary tactic, but this was no ordinary Roman battle. Equally, the man about to throw a rock would be an unusual choice, but on that fateful last day the desperate Romans were forced to do anything to survive, including throwing whatever came to hand at their tormentors. So as a general set of Roman infantry we would have thought some of the poses were poor, but for the battle in question, and particularly the last great fight for the barricade, they are all perfect.
So we have covered clothing, armour, weaponry and poses, and have found nothing to complain about so far - indeed much to praise. The sculpting may not quite to the same exulted standard, but it is pretty good nonetheless. There is good detail, and while the sculptor has made an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to depict mail links when a rough indistinct surface would actually be more realistic, he has otherwise captured shapes and proportions well. The creases in the clothing look good, as do the faces, so this is plenty good enough for pretty much anyone. There is some flash, and occasionally there is extra plastic such as with the man striking down with the pilum, but despite all the shields (which are happily undecorated here) being a part of the man (rather than separate) there is minimal trimming.
If we had to find fault with this set then it would be that while it is perfect for the intended role, it is not so useful for the many much more typical battles that the Romans fought around this time. However that was clearly never the intention, so should not be taken as a criticism. In an ideal world more of the shields would be directly in front of the man (very hard to do with a one-piece steel mould), but realistically we can find plenty to love about this set and nothing to temper that love. A great set and one that really whets the appetite for set 2 and all those that are to follow.