Our Spiritual Armor – Part 1
Ephesians 6:10-18 instructs Christians to “suit up” in preparation for the spiritual warfare we face in the world. The images are far richer than we imagine if we examine what those pieces of clothing actually looked like at the time and how they functioned. In this 2-part post, I will first take a look at the “uniform” Paul told us to wear, then attempt to apply that information to our 21st century life. Rome and her empire ruled much of the world during the time of the New Testament, so it makes sense that Paul used images from a Roman soldier’s battle gear as an illustration of fighting in a spiritual war. Not only does he remind us we are in a spiritual battle, but he assures us that God has provided all we need for the fight. Just as Roman soldiers were trained to use their armor, we need to learn what battle coverings we have and how we should use them. We should also remember that those soldiers were always ready for battle, and even their daily routines helped them prepare. For example, Roman soldiers were expected to march up to 20 miles a day wearing all their armor while also carrying food and tents. That would whip anyone into shape fairly quickly! Each piece of the soldier’s clothing was specially designed to assist him in the coming battles. Here are some details of that clothing that apply well to the spiritual battle we face daily. Armor The Roman soldiers lived during a time when a deep cut or puncture would usually prove fatal, so protecting themselves from swords, arrows and daggers was vitally important. The most commonly used (I think from my research) armor of the day covered a soldier’s chest and shoulders, providing such protection. It was also lightweight, making it easy for the soldier to maneuver during a battle. Called lorica segmentata, this body armor was made from broad iron strips, called “girth hoops.” which were fastened to leather straps. The strips were then arranged horizontally on the body, overlapping downwards. Joined into 2 pieces, they surrounded the soldier’s torso and were fastened at the front and back by brass hooks joined with leather laces. The upper body and shoulders were protected by additional strips or “shoulder guards,” as well as breast and back plates. This form, which could be separated into 4 sections, allowed the soldier to store it very compactly and carry it easily. There are two opinions about who used this form of armor. One is that only legionaries (the heavy infantry of Roman legions) and praetorians (palace guards) were issued this type. The other view is that most all the soldiers used segmentata armor. The latter view is partially supported by archaeological finds, and it seems logical as the segmentata provided greater protection than the others while it weighed about half as much. However, it was also more difficult to produce and repair. Helmets Several types of helmets were used during Roman times. The older Montefortino helmet was sort of shaped like a bowl, and featured a topknot filled with lead as well as a hole to hold a feather. The Coolus helmet, another type, was a round bronze helmet with a little neck guard at the back. The Port helmet, which is probably the one Paul refers to, was made from iron and featured a long neck guard in the back. It also had a topknot made to hold the famed Roman crest we see in so many depictions of the time. The helmet later became known as the imperial Gallic helmet. In this helmet, the neck portion was enlarged even further, and metal cheek-guards were added to protect the face. It also included a large reinforced rib on the front of the helmet and across the forehead. This was designed to prevent downward sword slashes from penetrating the helmet and causing head injuries. According to some ancient writers, Roman helmets had other benefits besides the obvious protective function. Polybius (Histories, 6.23) stated that the decorations on the top of these helmets had a psychological impact on their enemies as it made the Roman soldiers look taller. Shields Roman soldiers had two kinds of shields, one for offense (used in hand-to-hand combat) and one for defense. The shield Paul speaks of is the bigger one, used mostly for defending against arrows. The shields were curved to fit around the soldier’s body, and wide enough to be butted-up against the shields of other soldiers when fighting in formation. The Roman shield (Scutum) was not made of metal, since metal shields were subject to rust damage. Instead, it was formed using three layers of wood strips, glued together to create a sturdy surface about 2 inches thick. Front and back strips were placed vertically, while the middle strips were horizontal. It was held up with a leather-wrapped horizontal handgrip. The soldier's name and unit were marked on the inside and outside so each could recognize his own gear. The front of each shield was emblazoned with the legion’s specific symbol, identifying to which company the soldier belonged. Each shield was covered with leather or linen to strengthen the shield and also provide a suitable surface for painting. According to the ancient writer Polybius, these shields were 4 feet long, about 2-1/2 feet wide, and weighed about 22 pounds. As a defensive weapon, the scutum was carried in front of the soldier, protecting him from arrows and swords. It could also be used as an offensive weapon for pushing the enemy back or pinning the enemy against something so he could be struck with the sword. Another use for these shields was protection of a wounded soldier. Other soldiers would put their shields around him, covering him from the enemy’s assault until he could get medical attention or recover enough to get back into the fight. The Roman army was well-known for a variety of battle formations. Testudo (tortoise in Latin) is a formation that was extremely effective against projectiles like arrows and stones. In this formation , the soldiers positioned their shields over their heads and connected with the neighboring soldier. This formed sort of a roof over their heads. The soldiers in the front would form a wall of protection there. Thus, every shield protected the entire army. The kind of sword fights we enjoy watching in movies, with two soldiers clanging swords until the skill of one makes him the victor, rarely happened in real combat. Those weapons would not hold up long under such treatment. A soldier’s shield took the blows instead. Swords The gladius (sword) was used by Roman soldiers when they were fighting in close combat because it was particularly good for stabbing. Although the term could mean any type of sword, modern historians generally agree this instance refers to a specific Roman short sword. This gladius was generally just 50 cm long and made out of steel, with two very sharp edges which tapered to a point. The sharp edges made it useful for slashing while the pointed end was best for stabbing in close combat. A knobbed hilt was designed for ease of handling. The owner's name was often engraved or punched somewhere on the blade so the soldier could determine which sword belonged to him. The gladius was worn in a scabbard generally attached to his belt but sometimes on a shoulder strap. The scabbard or chape was two pieces of leather covered in metal around the rim so it was n’t easily damaged by the sword being inserted or pulled out. The lower end of the chape was also reinforced to protect the sword’s tip. Roman soldiers of Paul’s day carried a large shield, spears and darts along with their sword. The relatively light weight of this sword made carrying all this gear on the battlefield easier for the average soldier. When battle began, the spears and darts could be thrown to breakdown the enemy’s formation, separating them into individual fighters. Then, as close quarter fighting began, the gladius was drawn to engage them. Soldiers were trained to thrust their swords behind enemy shields to penetrate the soft belly, but were also instructed to use any opportunity available, such as slashing at knees and legs, to bring the enemy down. Shoes Caligae, the Roman soldier’s footwear, was basically a heavy-soled sandal with brass hobnails or 3-6 inch spikes on the bottom. This design helped keep the soldier’s footing secure when engaging the enemy, but could also be used for offensive purposes. Those long spikes could deliver a vicious blow to an enemy! The shoes laced up the front and had a leather tongue to protect the foot and shin. The higher the shoe reached on the leg, the more superior was the rank of the officer. The toes were left bare. Since the Roman army had huge companies of foot soldiers, the better their shoes, the better off the army would be. They could travel farther and fight more effectively if the shoes were well made and well maintained. Belt In his list of spiritual armor, Paul puts the belt first, but I have put it last on purpose. Since complete sets of military belts have rarely been found, our understanding of what it was like is far less reliable than the other pieces of a soldier’s uniform. But, from the research I did, it seems likely it was a far more important part than I ever imagined. Whatever the actual design of the belt, it’s symbolic meaning to the Romans is clear. The military belt set the man apart from other citizens and marked him as a warrior. So much so that taking away a soldier’s belt in public was a humiliation, used as a disciplinary measure. So what are the characteristics of this unique piece of “armor”? The basic garment worn by Roman legionnaires – as well as by civilians – was the tunic. A belt allowed the wearer to adjust the tunic’s length by pulling up the fabric and draping it over the belt, sort of creating a pair of shorts. This was called “girding up the loins,” and was the same basic function of a soldier’s belt. However, that’s where the resemblance to “regular” belts ended. The military belt, or cingulum militare, was about 6-8 inches wide, and was made of metal-studded leather. It cinched with a buckle (fibula) like our belts, and it held a sheath for the soldier’s dagger. In the front hung 4-6 leather strips (pteryges), also adorned with metal discs and rings. In the past, it was thought these were protection for genitals, but it seems they would have offered little help as they hung free. Instead, archeologists believe this part of the belt was worn as sort of a badge, indicating the soldier’s rank. A standard “uniform” for the Roman soldier when not wearing his armor had no other way to indicate his rank. Since the basic garments worn by soldiers were pretty much the same as civilians would wear, some distinction was necessary. As far as the practical uses for the belt, as we understand them: the belt held everything in place, from the big, baggy tunics they wore underneath to the metal armor on top. It also served as a base for carrying some necessary items. The sword would not be hung on this belt, but was generally carried on another, longer belt that was looped above the shoulder. The bullae or metal pieces on various parts of the belt were not just decoration and symbols of rank. These elaborate heavy attachments made the belt both eye-catching and noisy. Together with the loud sound of their hobnailed sandals as they marched, the jingling of the belt would have served as a warning to the enemy that Roman soldiers were approaching. This distinctive sound would likely strike fear in the hearts of the enemy forces. In Our Spiritual Armor - Part 2, I will apply this information to the scripture reference in Ephesians 6, and see if it makes the passage more applicable to the 21st century.