MORE LIKE LIONS THAN MEN: The Battle of Loch Lochy, 1544

Published in Medieval Warfare 6.3. Click here for a pdf of the uncorrected proof.

On 15 July 1544, Hugh Fraser, the third Lord Lovat, marched northwards along the bank of Loch Lochy. The chief of the Frasers was accompanied by his son and heir, Simon, the Master of Lovat, and his nephew, Ranald Gallda, claimant to the title of Captain of Clanranald. They were followed by 400 warriors, drawn from the leading gentlemen and able men of Clan Fraser. This host was about to fight one of the most celebrated battles in Highland history.


Deatail of Hermann Moll’s map of Inverness-shire (1745), showing Loch Lochy, Letterfinlay and Laggan Achildrom, where John Moidartach routed the Frasers. NLS

Highland Host

Lord Lovat would have been attended by a troop of guardsmen known in Gaelic as luchd-taighe (household men) or more poetically, léine-chneis or –chrios, the chief’s protective ‘shirt next to the skin’. The guardsmen, who traditionally numbered 10, 12 or 16, were sometimes called buannachan (billet men), reflecting the practice of billeting troops on unfortunate tenants. The exactions of some buannachan became infamous. Later MacDonald and MacLeod traditions featured tales of heroic peasants (lowly men who were despised for toiling in the soil and excluded from military service) employing cunning ruses to trap and kill the greedy and bullying buannachan.

According to Martin Martin, a native of Skye who toured the Western Isles of Scotland in the 1690s and recorded the traditional practices of the clans, the ‘young gentlemen called Luchktach (i.e. luchd-taighe), or Guard de Corps, always attended the Chieftain at home and abroad; they were well trained in managing the sword and target, in wrestling, swimming, jumping, dancing, shooting with bows and arrows, and were stout seamen.’ Martin adds that ‘every Chieftain had a bold Armour-Bearer, whose business was always to attend the person of his master night and day to prevent any surprise, and this man was called the galloglass; he had likewise a double portion of meat assigned him at every meal.’

In 1544, the Master of Lovat was accompanied by his own guard of ten men, described as ‘half a score of pretty men… each of his ten men was worth ten men.’ It is likely that Ranald Gallda, styling himself as a chief, had a guard, and that he and his cousin were attended by armour-bearers.

The remainder of the Fraser force was organised into companies of variable size under captains. The captains usually led their own immediate kin and dependents rather than men from other branches of the clan or from allied clans and septs. As the Earl of Argyll (chief of Clan Campbell) explained to a correspondent in 1565, gentlemen captains ‘cannot trust to unknown men so well as their own men.’

Head-Strong Men

EPSON scanner image

Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan in bascinet, mail coat and armed with a two-handed sword and Dence axe (1528). Copyright Ross Cowan

When Lord Lovat reached Letterfinlay, he was met by a delegation led by the chiefs of the Grants and MacIntoshes. They warned that John Moidartach, the Captain of Clanranald, was shadowing Lovat’s march on the far side of Lochy Lochy, and that he would attempt to ambush the Frasers at its head. The chiefs offered their own retinues to bolster Lovat’s force and to escort him to his territory by Loch Ness, but Lovat declined. He was confident in the fighting skills of his men: it was well known that Hugh Fraser insisted on an exacting training regime with sword and bow; a later Fraser chronicler remarks that Lovat’s men were ‘a terror to his bad ravaging neighbours.’ Lovat was also swayed by the protest of his kinsman, James Fraser of Foynes. This head-strong man, as he was remembered in Fraser tradition, asserted that Lord Lovat would be considered cowardly if he marched in convoy with the Grants and MacIntoshes. The 400 Frasers, insisted Foynes, were a “party strong enough for all that could contradict them in the road.”

Grant and MacIntosh departed and Lovat continued his march, but the chief now thought it prudent to detach a force of a hundred men to act as a rear guard. If John Moidartach and his allies did attack at the head of the loch, this force would either march to the aid of the chief or keep his line of retreat open. Bean Clerach, a trusted vassal, was assigned the captaincy of the detachment and instructed to keep within sight of the main Fraser force, but he managed to march his men ‘out of sight beyond Drumglach [Druim Glaoidh, the hill overlooking Letterfinlay] most inadvertently, so that he was of no use to the host.’

As the Frasers neared the head of the loch, John Moidartach’s force was sighted marching from the north side of the loch towards Laggan Achadrom. The army consisted of Moidartach’s own MacDonalds of Clanranald, and contingents from the MacDonalds of Keppoch, and the Camerons. The force marched under seven banners, suggesting it was organised into seven companies, and its estimated strength was ‘not under five or six hundred men’.

Despite being outnumbered by perhaps two-to-one, Lord Lovat determined to fight. When the MacDonalds and Camerons were first sighted, the Frasers still had time to retreat by the way they had come, but Lovat instead halted his force in a field at the head of Loch Lochy, held a counsel of war, took mass with his personal chaplain and then refreshed himself before haranguing his clansmen. Lovat reminded the gentlemen of their heroic forbears and emphasised the justice of their cause (the restoration of Ranald Gallda and exacting revenge for Moidartach’s invasion of Fraser lands). The chief stressed how he was related to the gentlemen, that he would fight with them and for them, and he would rather die than endure the shame of retreat.

John of Moidart


Donald MacGillespie in bascinet and actoun (after 1528). Copyright Ross Cowan

John Moidartach doubtless delivered a similar speech to his men, reminding them how in 1540, he had been unjustly imprisoned by the king, stripped of the charters to his lands, and usurped by the despised Ranald Gallda.

Ranald was a MacDonald, being the youngest son of Allan MacRuari of Moidart, the Captain of Clanranald, and his second wife, the daughter of Thomas Fraser, the second Lord Lovat. Ranald was brought up in Lovat’s household and his MacDonald kinsmen bestowed on him the nickname of Gallda, the Stranger.

Allan MacRuari was executed in 1509 and succeeded as chief by his eldest son, Ranald Bane. However, in 1513 he too was executed for some unspecified treason and succeeded in turn by his son, Dougal, but his reign as chief was tyrannical and he was assassinated. Dougal’s young sons were overlooked in the succession and Alexander, the second son of Allan MacRuari, assumed the title of Captain of Clanranald. He then ensured that John Moidartach, his talented, but illegitimate, son, succeeded him before 1530. John consolidated his position as clan chief by establishing himself as a feudal lord. He spent the 1530s acquiring charters for the Clanranald estates, but in 1540 this ambitious chief was imprisoned by King James V.

Lord Lovat seized the opportunity to press the claim of his nephew: John’s charters were revoked and Ranald Gallda, as the surviving son of Allan MacRuari, was granted the estates and installed as Captain of Clanranald. However, the Stranger did not prove a popular leader and, following the death of James V in 1542 and John’s release from prison, he had to retreat back to Fraser country. Reinstalled as Captain by popular consent, John Moidartach proceeded to form a coalition with the MacDonalds of Keppoch and the Camerons. Together they invaded Fraser and Grant lands around Loch Ness. John was interested in more than plunder and intended to occupy the lands, but in summer 1544 the Earl of Huntly, in his role as the Crown’s lieutenant in the north, raised a large army to restore the lands to the Frasers and Grants. The Captain of Clanranald decided on a tactical retreat and withdrew.

The royal army, including the 400-strong Fraser contingent, met with no resistance, reclaimed the evacuated territory and advanced down the Great Glen to Inverlochy. Achieving his objective with such ease, Huntly hastened to return home. Despite the warnings of Grant and MacIntosh about the likelihood of a Clanranald ambush, Lovat wished to proceed directly to his reclaimed lands via the Great Glen, passing by Loch Lochy, rather than take the roundabout route with the royal army via Glen Spean. Lovat marched directly into John Moidartach’s trap.

The Battle of the Shirts

The battle began when the opposing sides came into bowshot. Every Highland warrior was an accomplished archer, his skills honed by continual practice and hunting. According to John Leslie, the Bishop of Ross, whose History of Scotland was completed in 1570, the ‘skirmishing’ started ‘with bows and arrows, which lasted a long time, until their whole shafts was expended on both sides.’ With their supply of missiles exhausted, the clansmen charged to close quarters and ‘fought so cruelly’ with swords.

Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, writing in the 1620s, echoes the Bishop: ‘They first discharged their bows… and their arrows being spent, they fly to their swords.’ A more detailed picture of the fighting is offered by Reverend James Fraser. A keen student of history and traditions of his clan, he started writing his True Genealogy of the Frasers in 1666. In his description of the battle, the reverend skips over the archery duel and moves directly to the ‘hot engagement’ in which Fraser, MacDonald and Cameron warriors ‘fought more like lions than men’.

Reverend Fraser records that the combatants were armed with two-handed swords and Dence (Danish) axes, and some had protective gear of head pieces and coats of mail. The fighting was brutal. The Frasers fought heroically, especially Lord Lovat, the Hard Slayer as the Clanranald warriors called him, and he was the focus of their attack. The Frasers, waiting in vain for Bean Clerach to reinforce them, were pushed back towards the loch, and finally into it, where the combatants grappled and the fighting was so close that axes and swords were dropped and dirks were drawn. The day was so hot that many warriors fought in their shirts, hence the popular name of the battle, Blar na Leine, the Field of the Shirts. However, this description may actually stem from a mistranslation of the Gaelic Blar na Leana, the field of the swampy meadow, which would well describe the location at the head of Loch Lochy.

Lovat’s men were eventually overwhelmed. Lord Lovat and Ranald Gallda were slain. The Master of Lovat was severely wounded. The victors carried him from the battlefield and he was nursed in the house of Cameron of Lochiel, but died three days later.

Later traditions assert that all, or all but four or five, of the 300 Frasers were killed. However, in 1545, correspondence between the representatives of Donald Dubh (in rebellion against the Scottish Crown as claimant to the Lordship of the Isles) and Henry VIII of England, noted that Donald’s ally, ‘the Captain of Clanranald, in his defence, slew the Lord Lovat… with thirteen score of men’.

We have, so far, focused on the Fraser warriors, but gentlemen required servants and baggage carriers. It was typical of the aristocratic annals of the clans to ignore these lowly clansmen, but Bishop Leslie reports that, as well as the 300 Frasers, ‘a great number of commons’ were killed. The number of servants attached to a Highland company is rarely recorded, but in 1664, the Earl of Sutherland sent 120 ‘chosen and able men…with sixty servants to take care of the baggage’ to aid the MacIntoshes in a campaign against the Camerons.

John Moidartach’s force suffered heavy casualties but no MacDonald or Cameron notables were slain. His allies would be hunted down and executed by the Crown, but wily John was untouchable in remote Moidart and he was eventually pardoned. In 1572 he even entered into a bond of friendship with Hugh Fraser, the fifth Lord Lovat and grandson of the Hard Slayer.

John held the Clanranald estates until his eventual death in 1584. He did so not by charter, but by the sword.

Info panel to accompany original artwork


Warriors at Loch Lochy, 1544 by Marek Szyszko

Reverend James Fraser describes Fraser and MacDonald combatants armoured with coats of mail. The habergeon was certainly popular with Highland fighting men, as were jacks and plate armour, but the illustration by Marek Szyszko shows two fighters at Loch Lochy equipped with actouns (the Scots variant of aketon), a padded fabric armour much favoured by Highlanders because it doubled as a weatherproof coat. The actoun could be proofed with wax or pitch and a facing of deer skin might be added for extra protection against cuts. Robert the Bruce’s legislation of 1318 required yeomen to be equipped with bascinets and actouns. Highlanders continued to use this gear for hundreds of years. A 17th century effigy of a MacLean chief on Inch Kenneth shows the deceased in his fighting gear of morion, actoun, sword and targe (the shield covers most of the hilt, but the pommel suggests a Highland-type two-handed sword), and dirk. He even holds a cannon ball in his right hand.

The heads of the warriors in Marek’s illustration are protected by bascinets. This type of helmet, long out of fashion in Lowland Scotland, remained popular in the Highlands into the mid-sixteenth century. The grave slab of Donald MacGillespie, who died after 1541, depicts the Islay gentleman with the usual panoply of bascinet, actoun and long sword. The bascinet was superseded by the morion, but as late as 1678 some Highland fighting men were noted for their use of the bascinet and other archaic armour like mail pisanes and plate limb defences. One observer remarked that such pieces were only known in ‘our old laws’ and had not been used in the Lowlands ‘for several hundreds of years’.

Marek’s illustration vividly demonstrates combat with the two-handed Highland-type sword. This distinctive sword, with its sloping quillons and quatrefoil terminals, appeared in the 1490s and remained the principal weapon of the Highland gentleman until the early seventeenth century. Combat with the two-handed sword was fast and fluid. Relatively light and well-balanced (weights of surviving examples range from 1.8 to 2.6 kg), it was sometimes used in conjunction with a small round shield (targe or buckler), as at the battle of Glen Livet in 1594.

Further Reading

The sources relating to the battle of Loch Lochy are conveniently collected in an Inventory of Historic Battlefields document, available for download here.

D. Gregory’s The History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland (2nd ed., Glasgow 1881), remains the best starting point for untangling the complex history of the Highlands. On Highland militarism, see M. MacGregor, ‘Warfare in Gaelic Scotland in the Later Middle Ages’ in J.A. Crang, et al. (eds), A Military History of Scotland (Edinburgh 2012), 209-231. For arms and armour, see D.H. Caldwell, ‘Having the Right Kit: West Highlanders Fighting in Ireland’ in S. Duffy (ed.), The World of the Galloglass (Dublin 2007), 144-168. On two-handed Highland-type swords, see ‘Halflang and Tua-Handit’.

Roman Warriors: The Myth of the Military Machine

Published in Military History Monthly 27 (Dec. 2012). For a scan of the illustrated article, click here.

The Roman army is often described as a ‘military machine’, but the Romans were not automatons and it took little for them to morph from disciplined soldiers into wild warriors. The Romans’ penchant for single combat, their habit of taking heads and scalps in battle, and their not infrequent bouts of indiscipline and berserk behaviour amply demonstrate their warrior credentials.


Praetorian guardsmen brandish heads taken in battle. Detail from the Great Trajanic Frieze. Copyright Mike Bishop

A Military Machine?

The complex organisation of the Roman army, its multiplicity of specialist ranks and functions, rigorous training and, above all, its success in war, has resulted in it often being described as a ‘military machine’ in modern media. It is viewed as the precursor of modern standing armies, and its men, especially the legionaries, as the first professional soldiers.

The Romans knew their army as the exercitus. The literal meaning of this Latin word is ‘exercise’ and it emphasises the importance the Romans placed on training and discipline. They worshipped the goddess Disciplina and the Campestres, the divinities of the parade ground, but Roman legionaries were not blindly obedient.

Discipline was of course hugely important. However, during the long history of the Roman army, soldiers – actual Romans, Italians, provincials or men from beyond the frontiers – were encouraged to develop reputations for virtus, a quality that encompassed manliness, excellence and, above all, valour. Virtus was the quality of the individual warrior, and it was maintained and enhanced by competition with other warriors.

Corporate soldierly discipline allowed the legions to march to the battlefield in good order, build camps and fieldworks and to assume their initial battle formations, but when loosed into combat, and beyond the effective control of their general and officers, the warrior quality of virtus took over, and the acts of individual legionaries decided the outcome of battle.

Soldiers and Warriors

Legionaries were organised into tactical subunits called maniples (‘handfuls’) or centuries. Sometimes the legionaries fought shoulder to shoulder, making a block of united strength and power, driving forward like a wedge into the enemy battle line. Sometimes the legionaries assumed a loose formation, each man occupying six feet of space, free to fight as an individual but with support close at hand. Sometimes the legionary was expected to fight entirely alone, to turn and meet enemies from all directions. The legionary’s basic equipment of heavy javelin or spear, cut-and-thrust sword and a shield that covered him from shoulder to shin, was adaptable to the needs of group or individual fighting.

The Roman fighting man was therefore a formidable combination of soldier and warrior. Roman military organisation created disciplined groups of soldiers who would fight together for a common goal, but, when opportunity allowed, it permitted the individual warrior to emerge and to sate his desire for personal glory.

The Greek cavalry officer and historian Polybius, who was a political captive in Rome in the mid-second century BC, believed this potent mix of soldier and warrior made the Romans almost invincible. Sallust, a lieutenant of Julius Caesar, wrote of Romans being ruled by virtus, and how it made them completely fearless and wildly competitive. It could also make them uncontrollable.


At the battle of Thapsus (46 BC), Julius Caesar’s legionaries became impatient when he failed to give the order to advance. The legionaries took it upon themselves to intimidate a trumpeter at the far end of the battle line into sounding the charge. The centurions appear to have been complicit in this, for their attempts to hold back the legionaries were half-hearted. Caesar himself was hardly surprised at the disobedience; he had his trumpeter sound “good fortune” and boldly charged forward with his cavalry. The enemy was routed, but the battle-crazed Caesarians ignored their general’s orders to halt the pursuit and killed those who tried to surrender.

A similar episode occurred in AD 68. At Vesontio, during a parley between the Roman general Verginius Rufus and the Gallic rebel Vindex, the disapproving legionaries of the Rhine army broke the truce and fell upon the rebel force. It was annihilated. Two years later, during the siege of Jerusalem, legionaries ignored the vocal and visual orders of their commander, the future emperor Titus, and deliberately set fire to the Temple. Josephus, the Jewish rebel commander and historian, describes the Romans as being beyond control: “neither persuasion nor threats could restrain their violence.”

In the fourth century AD, little had changed. In AD 359, legionaries transferred from Gaul to defend the Mesopotamian fortress city of Amida preferred not to guard the ramparts, but to make sallies and fight the besieging Sassanid Persians on open ground. The gates of the city were eventually barred to prevent their risky sorties, but the legionaries threatened to kill senior officers and were permitted to make one final sortie at night.

Armed with swords and axes, they killed the Persian guards, entered the enemy camp and advanced on the tent of the king, Shapur II. They never reached it. An eye-witness account, written by the staff officer Ammianus Marcellinus, describes how the legionaries cut down countless Persians, including noble commanders, but they were eventually forced to retreat by the volume of the arrows loosed by the Persian archers. Virtus carried the legionaries only so far, and cohesive discipline was re-asserted during the retreat. Ammianus describes with admiration how the legionaries made their orderly fighting retreat “as if to music.”

Four hundred legionaries were killed in the night-long battle, perhaps a third, or even a half of their total number; by this date, the legions were a fraction of the size of the classic regiments led into battle by Julius Caesar. Yet the Persians had suffered such heavy casualties that they sought a truce of three days. The campidoctores who led the attack and were killed in the camp, or covering the retreat, were subsequently commemorated with statues.

In these campidoctores (field instructors of senior centurion rank) we see how unbalanced the mix of soldier of warrior could become. These men were responsible for training the Roman exercitus and instilling discipline, but when tasked with defending a wall instead of fighting gloriously in open battle, their virtus was affronted. They threatened mutiny and murder and lost their lives in a heroic but futile mission.

Pullo and Vorenus

Centurions were in charge of maintaining discipline, and a few seem to have taken a perverse pleasure in doling out floggings, but centurions were also held up as exemplars of virtus. They were keenly aware of their reputations and went to extreme lengths to uphold or enhance their virtus.

Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus are now well-known from the television series Rome. In the series, Pullo is a mere legionary under the command of Vorenus, but in reality he too was a senior centurion.

In the winter of 54/3 BC, the legion of Pullo and Vorenus was besieged in its camp by the Nervii, the foremost of Gaul’s warrior tribes. The Nervii were the kind of opponents the Romans respected; greater glory was attained fighting brave men. For Titus Pullo, however, it was not enough to simply defend the ramparts. He had to take the fight to the enemy, and he dared Vorenus, his great rival, to follow him.

Julius Caesar, who led a relief force to lift the siege, wrote an account the incident. He introduces Pullo and Vorenus as always quarrelling and fiercely competing for the senior centurial posts in the legions. During one of the Nervian assaults, Pullo called to Vorenus: ‘Why hesitate, Vorenus? What chance of proving your bravery are you waiting for? This day will decide our contest.’ Pullo then leaped from the rampart and charged the Gauls! Vorenus could not allow Pullo to get away with such a feat of bravado. Following meant certain death, but honour and reputation were more important. Verenus left the defences and rushed at the bemused Nervian warriors.

Caesar tells us that “at close range, Pullo threw his pilum [heavy javelin] at the enemy, skewering one Gaul who had run forward from the multitude.” Wild Pullo was soon “knocked senseless and the enemy sought to cover him with their shields [i.e. box him in] and they all threw their missiles at him, giving him no chance of retreat. Pullo’s shield was pierced and a javelin was lodged in his belt. Vorenus, his rival, ran to him and helped him out of trouble. Vorenus fought with his gladius at close-quarters, killing one and drove the others back a little. But he pressed on too eagerly and fell into a hollow. He was surrounded in turn, but Pullo came to his aid. They killed several men and retired to the ramparts with the utmost glory.”

Despite their bravery, surely censure and punishment followed? Had not these men abandoned their posts and left their centuries without commanders to indulge in reckless bravado? Yes, but legionary centuries were organised to look after themselves; when the centurion was killed or went glory-hunting, his deputy (optio) and other under-officers assumed command. To the Roman mind, what Pullo and Vorenus did was virtus-enhancing. It was the best kind of heroic competition, glorious and inspirational. Despite their fierce rivalry, the centurions had demonstrated the triumph of comradeship, each saving the other. Caesar concludes that “it was impossible to decide which should be considered the braver man.”

Berserk Head-Hunters

Jacques Harmand, the great modern scholar of the Roman army in the age of Caesar, opined that Pullo and Vorenus, and many of their colleagues, were berserks. Other notable examples are Scaeva, whose terrifying antics awed the enemy at Dyrrhachium, and Crastinus, the ‘rabid’ (as a later Roman writer described him) centurion who led the suicidal opening charge at Pharsalus (48 BC).

Berserk behaviour was not limited to Caesar’s centurions. In the battle against Ariovistus’ Germans (58 BC), Caesar witnessed some of his ordinary legionaries hurling themselves onto the roof of the Germans’ dense testudo (‘tortoise’, a defensive shield formation) and tearing away the shields to hack at the enemy from above.

Such furor (‘fury’) was characteristic of Roman warriors from the earliest times. In 437 BC, in a cavalry skirmish outside the Latin town of Fidenae, the military tribune Cornelius Cossus encountered Lars Tolumnius, the king of Etruscan Veii. According to the later Roman historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (presumably drawing on the ballad tradition of the aristocratic Cornelii clan), Cossus unsaddled Tolumnius with his lance, then leapt from his horse and battered the king with the boss of his shield as he struggled to rise. Cossus speared the king through the torso and pinned him to the ground. With typical Roman overkill, he tore out the lance and stabbed the king repeatedly. Cossus quickly stripped the king of his armour, hacked off his head and fixed it to the point of his lance and remounted his horse. The Etruscan cavalry panicked and fled when the bloody warrior charged towards them with the severed head of their king.

The taking of heads is usually associated with the ‘barbarian’ enemies of Rome, especially the Gauls. According to Diodorus, who wrote in the first century BC,  “when their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses. They carry them off as booty, singing a paean over them and striking up a song of victory. These first-fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just as men do, in certain kinds of hunting, with the heads of wild beasts.”

Some scholars have suggested that the Romans became head hunters during their protracted struggles with the Gauls, but Cossus decapitated Tolumnius almost 50 years before the Romans and Gauls first met in battle. Roman head-taking probably goes back to pre-history. The Romans maintained a tradition that Romulus, son of Mars and legendary founder of Rome, had defeated a rival Latin king in single combat and then beheaded him. Nor were the Romans the only Italian people that took heads. After the disastrous (for the Romans) battle of the Cremera, the Etruscans of Veii cut off and retained as trophies the heads of most notable of the Roman casualties (477 BC), while the Aequi, were known to taunt the Romans with the severed heads of legionary commanders.

Decapitation was often the final act in single combat, and duelling with an enemy champion was the ultimate way in which a Roman proclaimed his status as a warrior.

A fragment of the lost history of Claudius Quadrigarius tells how Titus Manlius, a legionary tribune, was challenged to single combat by a Gallic champion in 361 BC. The Gaul, a member of a mercenary war band probably in the employ of Rome’s Latin rivals, met Manlius on neutral ground, a bridge crossing the River Anio. In classic Roman fashion, Manlius did not bother with fancy swordplay, but battered the Gaul with his shield and threw him off-balance. As the Gaul stumbled back and dropped his guard, Manlius stabbed him in the chest and then in the shoulder, and finally decapitated him. This allowed easy access to the Gaul’s gold neck torque: “Manlius tore off his torque and put it, covered as it was with blood, around his own neck. Because of this act he himself and his descendants had the surname Torquatus.”

In 222 BC, Claudius Marcellus slew Viridomarus, king of the Gaesati, at the battle of Clastidium. According to one account of the battle, the Gaesati were superior in cavalry and Marcellus had to extend line to prevent his army being enveloped. He was contemplating how best to retreat when proud Viridomarus rode up and challenged him to single combat. Marcellus was a noted duellist and his renown had probably reached the ears of the North Italian Gauls. He immediately accepted the challenge and spurred his horse forward. Plutarch, the biographer of Marcellus, relates “he charged at the king, and by a thrust of his lance which pierced his adversary’s cuirass, and by the impact of his horse at the gallop, threw him, still living, upon the ground, where, with a second and a third blow, he promptly killed him.” Propertius, the famous Roman poet, adds that Marcellus cut off Viridomarus’ head.

What happened to heads taken in combat? It is possible that, along with their arms and armour, the heads of kings like Lars Tolumnius and Viridomarus were dedicated to the god Jupiter as part of the spolia opima, the ‘greatest spoils’. Sometimes heads were presented to a commander to confirm an ordinary legionary’s number of kills (as occurred at the battle of the River Calor in 214 BC). Heads were occasionally used to adorn battlefield trophies (e.g. Munda, 45 BC). Like the Gauls, the Romans decorated their homes with trophies taken in battle, but there is no suggestion that impaled heads were to be found alongside the nailed-up shields, swords and helmets. However, the scalps of enemies might be used to decorate helmets. The Romans are known to have taken scalps and used them to decorate their helmets. At the battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC), the Roman consul Gaius Flaminius rode to his death wearing a helmet adorned with a long-haired scalp: he had taken it from the head of a Gallic chief he killed in single combat some years before. Like the heads taken by Gallic warriors and slung from their horses’ necks, or nailed to the doors of their homes, the scalp worn by Flaminius was a trophy that declared his prowess as an individual warrior. At the battle of Vercellae (101 BC), legionaries used scalping as a method to terrorise the bellicose womenfolk of the Cimbri into submission. It is not known if the scalps of these unfortunates were retained as trophies. The gruesome practice of taking scalps as trophies was still carried out in the second century AD. Recent research by Dr Guy Stiebel suggests that during the Bar Kokhba revolt (AD 132-135), legionaries covered their helmets with scalps taken from slaughtered Jewish rebels.

Head-taking continued into the Imperial period. In 2005, a spectacular Roman military tombstone was discovered in Lancaster. Dating to c. AD 100, it is decorated with a portrait of the cavalryman Insus. His stallion tramples a headless Briton; Insus brandishes the man’s severed head. It has been suggested that Insus, an auxiliary cavalryman of Gallic descent, followed the Gallic tradition of head-hunting, but a panel of the near-contemporary Great Trajanic Frieze, a triumphal monument in Rome celebrating the Dacian Wars of the Emperor Trajan (AD 101-2 and 105-6), shows praetorian guardsmen displaying trophy heads. The Column of Marcus Aurelius, which commemorates the Marcomannic Wars of AD 167-180, also depicts a praetorian holding up a head he has taken in battle. Praetorians were predominantly Italian and this suggests the old Roman practice of head-taking remained strong. The provincial legionaries (of Gallic and Germanic origin) who fought at Amida in AD 359 were motivated by a concept of virtus drummed into them by long service in the Roman army, and it is likely that Insus’ act of head-taking was strongly influenced by the traditions of the Roman army.

Warriors of the First Rank

Describing the Roman army as a military machine is attractive but imposes an inappropriate modernity. The Roman army developed out of the war bands of the earliest Roman clans, and despite growing massively in size and sophistication over the centuries, it always retained a warrior ethos.

In 221 BC, the eulogy delivered at the funeral of Lucius Caecilius Metellus proclaimed he had achieved the “ten greatest and highest objects” that marked out great men. These included having been a brave general and winning victories under his own auspices, but the most important object Metellus attained was having been a warrior (bellator) of the first rank.

The Roman army certainly punished acts of insubordination and indiscipline. Indeed some unfortunate soldiers were executed in order to bring others to heel. The classic example is the younger Manlius, who was executed by his own father, the famed Torquatus, for breaking an order not to engage in single combat. However, the general preoccupation with proving one’s worth as a warrior (something that Romans of all ranks and classes could aspire to) explains why the antics of men like Titus Pullo or the campidoctores at Amida were not just tolerated, but praised and commemorated.