Period Fighting Styles:

The Oval Shield from Trajan’s Column

by Andras Salamandra

One of the interesting things about SCA combat is that so many fighters all fight the same way, with 13-14th century French/English equipment. One of my current projects is to develop a fighting style using an oval shield like that used by Roman Auxiliaries, the Gauls, and the Dacians). My motivation is a combination of curiosity and the belief that any weapon used for centuries by a variety of cultures must have been highly effective. The shield is oval in shape, either flat or slightly curved, and uses a variety of grips. This article is an attempt to show how one can go about researching period sources for information. It is NOT a completed report of an investigation; it is an explanation of the process, and a report on progress to date. Anyone with additional sources or ideas is requested to pass them I along!

The first task was to gather period sources on how the shield was used. I have been unable to find a written 'Manual of Arms', so I have relied upon period sculpture. This can be a dangerous thing to do, as artists can't always be trusted to be accurate (or even knowledgeable) about technical details like this. Any gleanings of period combat technique will be need to be rigorously tested. Incidentally, anyone who is aware of any period 'Manual of Arms' (pre-1100) please contact me!

Trajan's column has a number of scenes depicting the use of the shield in combat. However, there appears to be an artistic convention (for Roman troops) to show the full front of the shield or just the edge of the back of the shield. Unfortunately for our purposes, we want a full back view of the shield! I highly recommend Trajan’s Column by Lepper & Frere as a primary source for all kinds of information on Roman and Dacian military practices. The book reproduces plates made in the 1860's by Cichorius at the request of Napoleon III as well as including an excellent commentary on the plates and the time period. These 120-year-old plates are more informative than looking at itself because pollution has corroded the column in the last 50 years. The illustrations give the Plate, scene, and reference number used by Lepper & Frere. To make it easier to compare the grips, the shields have all been oriented to the same direction.

Plate XIX, Scene xxiv, (59)

Plate XX, Scene xxv, (64)

Plate XXIII, Scene xxxi, (76)

Plate XXVII, Scene xxxvi, (89-90)
Roman irregular

Plate XXIX, Scene xxxviii, (97)

Plate XLIX, Scene lxviii, (174)

Plate LXVIII, Scene xciii, (174)

Unfortunately, the artist who designed the monument preferred to show the opening skirmishes of each battle rather than the 'main event' in which the heavy infantry, the Legionnaires, were involved. Thus our 'Roman' troops are mostly auxiliaries, and thus probably not Roman at all. Heraldic identification of the units by their shield designs is complicated by the fact that some Dacians are carrying Roman shields! This could be 'war booty' or just a sign that the stone carvers put designs they liked onto the shields (rather like the King Arthur book covers with Arthur bearing the Plantagenet Arms 600 years before the first Plantagenet!)

The next step is to cross-reference the information found on Trajan's column with archaeological finds, literature, and other artistic representations to determine the characteristics of the shield to be built. At the same time, we need to look for information on how the shield was used, as well as any other tactical information about the fighting style (such as rapid charges, tightly packed formations, etc.)

I built a shield like that of Plate XXIII, Scene xxxi, (76) for two reasons: Roman auxiliary and legionary shields have actually been found using that grip, and because it is the most different from the SCA traditional shield grip. I shall refer to this 'new' grip style as a horizontal center grip (as opposed to Plate XX, scene xxv, (64) which has a vertical center grip).

From preliminary surveys of the material, I have found several hints on how to use the shield with the horizontal center grip. The natural defensive position appears to be with the feet spread comfortably apart, the knees slightly bent, the body perpendicular to the enemy, the arm relaxed with the elbow slightly bent, with the top of the shield against the shoulder, the bottom of the shield against the knee, and the hand inside the boss with the wrist to the top and the knuckles to the front. Shields that are shorter than this may require a different stance.

The body is easily protected with this stance. By extending the arm down, and dropping the body by bending the knees more, the shin and foot are easily covered. A slight shift of the shield towards the back blocks wrap shots, and a similar maneuver blocks blows directed at the sword-side of the body. The only weak point seems to be the head, as it appears awkward and slow to block head blows by bending the elbow to raise the shield. The shield can be held higher up, but this requires more energy and the shield is less stable because contact with the shoulder and knee is reduced (tabling the shield is much easier then). It is possible that head shots are blocked by also ducking the head down and away from the shield, or that head blows are blocked with the sword.

An alternative stance would be similar to the 'high-style' used with round shields. The upper arm rests against the body, the elbow is bent with the forearm 10-15 degrees above the horizontal position, and with the shield aligned with the forearm. This stance gives excellent upper body protection, with head protection accomplished by the leading edge of the shield intercepting head blows early in the shot, or by ducking the head down and away from the shield. The legs are not as easily protected. Blocking a leg blow requires an early interception of the blow with the forward edge of the shield (This is very dangerous, as once the blow gets past -and under- the point of the shield, there is no way to move the shield faster than the blow) or by the moving away from the blow (since the high-style makes the enemy stand farther away, the blow must travel a much longer distance).

Experimentation has shown that changing from the basic stance to the high-style is both easy and fast. The high-style may be an offensive attack with the shield, either against the opponent's face or neck, or against his sword shoulder to pin his sword (coupled with a step or two to get in close to the enemy). It is possible to do an effective shield punch while standing behind the enemy's opposite shoulder! Celtic stories tell of heroes with razor-sharp shield edges that they used in battle. I have not yet determined how to pad the edge of the shield to allow attacks with the shield edge, nor have I reached a level of accuracy that would make such attacks safe for SCA combat.

Experimentation in one-on-one combat shows that routinely holding the head in the 'ducked' position (with sword blocks as well) until closing in and delivering a high-style shield punch is very effective. However, I haven't seen any evidence of such a style in the carvings, nor do I feel that it would be appropriate for close-order formations. It is a rather un-attractive position, and might have been 'politely' ignored by the sculptors. When preparing to throw a javelin, the shield arm is straightened out and moved away from the body while the body leans back to throw. When the javelin is thrown, the body weight shifts forward and the shield drops to the basic stance, giving added impetus to the throw. This is a review of progress to date. Anyone with an interest in this, or with information to share, is requested to contact me. I would like to thank Stonehew Ravensson for crafting the unusual shield boss needed for this project, Conan the Hellhound for testing some of the techniques in combat, and Artos Mac Andras for comparing javelin throwing with and without the shield.


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