Ahhh! Nothing better than a man in uniform

Officer Crests and Colors

Ever notice that the military loves color. It’s seen on soldiers everywhere and has been all through history. But one thing about it is, it’s not there just to look studly. Though it occasionally works, (It did with me); it’s there for practical purposes. Let me explain.

Joe Ensign If you read this picture of my hubby, you can see he was an officer in the Navy, he was an ensign, and hadn’t been to Vietnam…yet, only later. (In fact he went twice and became a Supply officer or as they were called ‘pork chop’ and…well I’m kinda proud and digress.)

So, back to colors and crests. You can see these insignia and color have a very practical purpose. Identification.  This is the first thing a recruit learns–how to recognize rank-officer or enlisted, Admiral/ General or Sergeant/Chief. This recruit will know all the pertinent information the moment the man steps from a car or chariot by what he wears.

I can’t see this need of identification any different from  thousands of years ago or today. Throughout history, men in charge of war and soldiers had to be recognized as whether he was enlisted/centurion or officer.

There is plenty of information on how the  crest was worn on the Roman helmet. If the crest was transverse or across the helmet, he was a centurion. If the crest was worn straight or front to back, he was an officer or regular soldier.

The length of the crest also determined status; the higher or taller the crest, the more senior the soldier was. The soldier below is an officer because his crest is not transverse and it stands very tall.   Well there is also the chest plate or cuirass–  another officer distinction.

Roman legionary soldier in front of abstract wall

Roman legionary soldier in front of abstract wall

One problem…in all my research, I have found nothing  that dictates what the possible colors and crests the officers would have worn. The only exception is for the Roman navy…they wore blue. I just can’t believe this is the way the Rome’s military would have done things, not with their love of display. Yet, everything would have also served a purpose.

So, I determined that my officers of my legions needed this color distinction.

Crest and calls2So, I assigned:

  • Purple to the Emperor as only he was allowed to wear this color.So I determined that his crest and cape would be purple with gold.   His elite personal guard, the Praetorians, wore a black and purple crest and purple cape, no gold trimmings.
  •  The color for the crests and capes  became White for the  Proconsuls, Consuls, or governors of the territories. His second in command or the Tribune Laticlavius, would have also worn a white cape but a black and white crest.
  • Red was the color for the legions. So, I gave the Legate or Commander’s crest and cape would be red as his legionaries or soldiers.
  • Black became the color of crests for the five tribune angusticlavii or lieutenants  commanding the cohorts or units. However their cape would be red as the legate and their men.
  • The Cavalry was under the leadership of a  single tribune angusticlaviii, however his title was Decurio. His crest became red and black, with his cape black.
  • The  Roman Navy wore blue….blue tunics, blue capes, and blue crests.  Therefore, the Praefecti or Admiral also wore a blue crest and cape, .  His second in command would wear a crest of blue and black.

Suetonius 2

So, is the above soldier an officer or centurion? Consul or legate?  Now imagine a new officer entering a tent where there is a mass of officers attending a dinner. He’s never met them before and, as he walks in, he glances at the removed helmets either on a table or in the arms of personal slaves. Wouldn’t he know instantly who was in attendance and his place .  Or, suppose this soldier enters a fort and sees another soldier approaching, wouldn’t he know immediately the man’s authority?

I don’t believe that anything in the military has ever been left to whim. So, wouldn’t this  would have been as important with the Roman Legion as well as today’s American military?  Your thoughts.

(Centurions are next up. Stay tuned.

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  1. Hi there. I am Primus Pilus (leading Centurion) of a roman group in South Australia. Just a few notes to assist your research.
    Firstly, Officers, ie Legatus and Tribubes wore Attic style helmets and so were easily recognisable because of this. An officer would not have worn a Galea of the legionaries as you have depicted.
    Secondly, Tribuni Angusticlavi were intended more as clerical support for the Legatus, and likely did not command Cohorts.
    The title of Decurio was actually for the leader of a group of 8 Legionaries, which is called a Contubernium. It was not used for officers.
    It is important to understand the importance of the colour white to Romans. It signified purity. This is why the Senatorial and Equestrian classes wore white togas. This needs to be accounted for when assigning colours as hardened and well-researched reenactors and students will question the reason.
    Also be aware that officers, that is, Legatus, Tribunes and the Praefectus Castrorum would most likely have worn Lorica Musculata, the muscled curaiss, which makes them instantly recognisable from rank and file, and from Centurions, who wore Lorica Squamata, Hamata and Segmentata.
    Hopes this helps..
    Am intrigued with your blogs. Well done.

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