Romans Wore Red-Crested Helmets to Avoid Fratricide on the Battlefield
We’ve all become accustomed to seeing iconic red-crested helmets depicted in Hollywood battle scenes set in the Roman era. But, are these red crests historically accurate or just a product of creative license? While Roman-era helmets ( galea) were obviously used for protection by armies carving out the Roman Empire, the thought of soldiers adding to their already bulky stash of kit by sporting a tall red brush on their helmet makes you wonder why on Earth they’d bother.
Nevertheless, there was a purpose to these cumbersome and colorful crests. In the case of celebratory parades, they would have been decorative, but when it came to the battlefield there had to be a more practical reason for wearing a crested helmet.
Many historians suspect that in the heat of battle they helped Roman warriors to stand out. That way they could quickly identify their comrades and avoid fratricide on the chaotic battlefield. Just like different clothing and symbols help with identification during modern warfare, crested helmets made it easier to recognize particular regiments or soldiers of different rank due to the color, design and style of their helmet crest. This would have been invaluable for locating commanders in the midst of battle.
Meanwhile, The History Guy claimed that this kind of unique identifier was useful in a culture in which men sought witnesses to their heroic deeds. According to the Greek historian Polybius, however, their aim was “to make every man look twice his real height… such as will strike terror into the enemy.” In reality, we’ll probably never know.
Representational image of Roman warrior in armor and wearing a feather-crested “brush” helmet. (Art Gallery / Adobe Stock)
The use of plumed or crested helmets by Roman legionaries (a kind of soldier who fought in a Roman legion) appears to have varied over time and location. Historians believe that these were made out of either horsehair or feathers, and would probably have been colored in natural tones of black, white or reddish-brown, rather than the bright red version we’re used to seeing today.
While earlier helmets are thought to have had centrally mounted plumes, it appears that helmets were fitted with removable crest boxes from the 1st century BC onwards, used to hold the hair or feathers in place. They were likely made from wood, and would have disintegrated over time. All that remains are metal fittings, or brackets, on the helmets themselves leaving archaeologists to hypothesize about their original design.
Discoveries of Roman battlefield remains are few and far between, and often incomplete, making it really difficult to know what soldiers wore during warfare itself. Add to that the biodegradable nature of crest boxes, and archaeologists are not certain whether they were worn during armed conflict at all. It’s even harder to decipher their color or style. All that’s left are Roman-era sculptures and monuments which were usually rendered far from the theater of war.
Top image: Representational image of a Roman soldier with a red-crested helmet. Source: Sunshower Shots / Adobe Stock