I recently resumed my travels on the Limes Germanicus and headed north along Rome’s frontier in the Roman province of Germania Inferior. The Lower Germanic Limes extended from the North Sea at Katwijk in the Netherlands to Bonna along the Lower Rhine. Numerous museums with impressive collections of Roman artefacts can be found by the Limes road. Among the masterpieces on display are the face mask helmets, also called cavalry sports helmets.
One such helmet was found at the site of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where three Roman legions were wiped out by the Germanic tribes in AD 9. This face mask originally belonged to a helmet of a Roman cavalry man. It is composed of an iron basis and sheet-silver applied to the surface. After the battle the valuable sheet-silver was cut off and hastily taken by Germanic ponderers.
According to Arrian of Nicomedia, a Roman provincial governor and a close friend of Hadrian, face mask helmets were used in cavalry parades and sporting mock battles called “hippika gymnasia“. Parades or tournaments played an important part in maintaining unit morale and fighting effectiveness. They took place on a parade ground situated outside a fort and involved the cavalry practising manoeuvring and the handling of weapons such as javelins and spears (Fields, Nic; Hook, Adam. Roman auxiliary cavalryman: AD 14-193).
Calvary helmets were made from a variety of metals and alloys, often from gold-coloured alloys or iron covered with tin. They were decorated with embossed reliefs and engravings depicting the war god Mars and other divine and semi-divine figures associated with the military.
Below are some examples of face mask helmets to be found in the museums of Germania Inferior.
The Nijmegen helmet above is a cavalry display helmet that was found in the gravel on the left bank of the Waal river south of Nijmegen in 1915. It dates to the 1st century AD, probably the latter half; the busts are Flavian in style, so from between AD 69 and 96.
This golden helmet was found on the bed of the Canal of Corbulo (Fossa Corbulonis) near the Roman fort of Matilo. It was the custom to offer part of one’s armour to the gods after a successful period of service. Perhaps that was the case with these wonderful objects. There is a latch on the helmet’s forehead indicating that this mask was once connected to a helmet of similar material.
Hippika gymnasia were colourful tournaments among the elite cavalry of the army, the alae. Both men and horses wore elaborate suites of equipment on these occasions, often in the guise of Greeks and Amazons. A reconstruction of a cavalryman and horse wearing pieces of display armour typical of the hippika gymnasia can be seen at the Museum het Valkhof in Nijmegen.
These two masks (above and below), of the Nijmegen-Kops Plateau type, were found at Noviomagus (modern-day Nijmegen). These kind of helmet, heavily embossed and figuring the hair of the wearer, appears during the first century.
Hadrian witnessed one such tournament at Lambaesis, a legionary base in the province of Africa (modern-day Algeria), in the summer of 128 AD. Over the course of three days of exercises, Hadrian observed the legion stationed there, the Legio III Augusta, and addressed different groups of soldiers separately in a speech (aldocutio). To the Ala I Pannoniorum, he complemented their prowess, telling them:
“You did everything according to the book. You filled the training ground with your wheelings, you threw spears not ungracefully, though with short and stiff spears. Several of you hurled spears with skill. Your jumping onto the horses here was lively and yesterday swift.”Translations from M. Speidel – Emperor Hadrian’s speeches to the African Army: A new Text (2006)—–
The speeches were memorialised on an inscription placed in the middle of the parade and exercise ground located two kilometres west of the main fortress at Lambaesis. It was carved on the corner pillars of a viewing platform topped by a Corinthian column, perhaps crowned with a statue of Hadrian (M. Speidel). It is the only surviving example of a speech from a Roman emperor to his soldiers (read more “Hadrian and his Soldiers. The Lambaesis Inscription“ & Hadrian’s Adlocutio at Lambaesis).