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Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 1 1990


Legio V Alaudae and the crested lark

M.C. Bishop

Suetonius tells us 1 that legio V Alaudae was raised by Caesar in Gallia Transalpina, probably in 52 B.C. from local levies, and that it took its cognomen from the Gallic word for a lark (alauda as opposed to the Latin galerita). 2 The legionary name is in fact a plural (‘The Larks’) and has been taken by modern authorities to be derived from the fact that the helmetcrest worn by these men resembled the head-plumage of the crested lark (Galerida cristata; Fig.1,1). This identification is based upon a passage in Pliny the Elder s Historia Nat­ uralis where, describing various types of crests in bird plumage, he refers to the naming of the legion after this particular bird. 3 Examination of Pliny’s text reveals, however, that this description is normally taken out of context, for he actually says that the alauda has ‘horns’ (cornicula) like those of a pheasant 4 – in other words, small tufts on either side of the bird s head. The crested lark, on the other hand, has only a central erect crest and so cannot be identified with the alauda. 5 It seems likely that the bird intended is in fact most likely to be the male shore (or horned) lark (Eremophila alpestris; Fig.1,2), a species of lark that possesses these charac- teristic tufts on the head. 6 Whilst no weight should be placed upon it, the present-day distribution of these species is interesting: the crested lark is now wide- spread in Europe, the Near East and North Africa, but the shore lark winters in a small area around the north- ern coasts of Europe, is a summer visitor in northern Scandinavia, and is resident in the Balkans and the Near East. 7 Even if the relative distributions were only approximately similar in Caesar s time, then we might reasonably expect the crested lark to be familiar to the Romans from Italy, and thus not particularly ‘Gallic’ in its associations. However, the rarer shore lark might only have been encountered by Caesar’s men in Gaul for the first time; characteristically a lark by its song, but very different in appearance from their native cres- ted lark. 8 By 52 B.C., Caesar had been to Britain and had campaigned in northern Gaul and may, therefore, have had the opportunity to see this bird.

This point would only be of passing interest, if it were not for the fact that it has something to tell us about the use of helmet-crests in the Roman army. 9 The helmet- crest was an important element of Roman military attire, signifying status 10 and also playing a psychological role. 11 There were a variety of ways of attaching crests or plumes to helmets in the army of the late Republic and early Imperial period. 12 One method was to have a cent- ral mounting point at the top of the bowl of the helmet, often with fixing rings at the front and back to secure a crest box (Fig.1,3). 13 Crest boxes could be attached to crest-knobs which were actually part of the helmet 14 (Fig.1,4) or to forked crest-holders. 15 Many helmets also display socalled plume-tubes, 16 designed to hold side plumes. Such side plumes can be seen being worn, to- gether with a central crest, on the tombstones of C. Castricius (of legio II Adiutrix) from Aquincum 17 and Flavinus the signifer (Fig.1,5) of the ala Petriana (now in Hexham Abbey). 18 Robinson has pointed out that side feathers were fashionable in Italy as early as the 4th century B.C., 19 but they are not normally found on Monte- fortino helmets and may not have been widely used by the late Republican army. 20 In a famous passage, Caesar talks of his men not having enough time to affix their insignia before battle, and this has sometimes been taken to mean crests, 21 and we might now suggest further that legio V earned its cognomen from the fact that its men wore only side-plumes, thus resembling the shore lark, which we have now identified with Suetonius and the Elder Pliny’s alauda. Thus one legion at least was distinguished from its fellows by a characteristic arrangement of its crests; it seems only logical to conclude that others may well have chosen to display their identity in some way. There is a suggestion in Tacitus’ Historiae that shields bore marks that helped identify units, and excavations in the Schutthügel at Vindonissa re- covered leather shield covers with small ansate pan- els naming the legion to which they belonged (XI


Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 1 1990

162 Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 1 1990 Fig. 1: 1 – The crested lark

Fig. 1: 1 – The crested lark (Galerita cristata) (after HAMMOND & EVERETT, 1980); 2 – the shore lark (Eremophila alpestris) (after ibid.); 3 – Imperial­Gallic type F helmet from Besançon, showing crest attachments (C) and plume tubes (P) (after ROBINSON, 1975); 4 – Montefortino type E helmet from Mainz showing crest attachments (C) and plume tube (P) (after ibid.); 5 – detail of the tombstone of Flavinus at Hexham, showing central crest with two plumes on one side of the helmet. Not to scale.

Claudia). 22 Josephus implies that troops did not nor- mally remove the protective covers from their equip- ment when in battle, contradicting the impression given by Caesar, who says it was normal practice for legionaries to remove their shield covers and affix their insignia. 23 Obviously, there were clear advant- ages in a commander being able to distinguish a unit when engaged in the field, and crests and shields

would be two of the most easily discerned indicators; indeed Vegetius says as much:

‘In case the soldiers should become separated from their comrades at any time in the confusion of battle, each cohort painted a different emblem – digmata, as they called them – on its shield, as indeed is still the custom. In addition, the name of the soldier was written on the front of the shield, together with his cohort and century.’ 24

Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 1 1990


Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 1 1990 163 Fig. 2: Hypothetical reconstruction of the cresting

Fig. 2: Hypothetical reconstruction of the cresting (insignia?) of legio V Alaudae, employing a plume on either side of the helmet in imitation of the shore lark.

Thus the insignia of a legion – those things which distinguished it from its fellows – appear to have in- cluded the helmet crests. The question of whether crests were worn in battle is, however, vexed; Polybi- us and Caesar certainly imply that they were, but Tra- jan’s Column and the Mainz column bases would ap- pear to suggest the opposite, unless there was a change in practice between the Republic and early Empire. 25 Status and display were two very closely linked functions of the helmet-crest, 26 and identification was linked to both of these. It would seem that we may now conclude that the cognomen ‘The Larks’ was a powerful piece of imagery and clearly more than just a playful nickname for Caesar’s legio V.


1. SUETONIUS, Div. Iul. 24. I am grateful to Martha An- drews and Dr J.C.N. Coulston for reading draft copies of this paper, and Drs H. Dodge and A.J. Parker for help ob- taining references. All errors naturally remain my own re- sponsibility.

2. Ad legiones, quas a republica acceperat, alias priuato sumptu addidit, unam etiam ex Transalpinis con­ scriptam, uocabulo quoque Gallico Alauda enim apellabatur, quam disciplina cultuque romano institutam et ornatam postea uniuersam ciuitate donauit.

3. XI,121: phasianae corniculis, praeterea paruae aui, quae, ab illo galerita appellata quondam, postea Gallico uocabulo etiam legioni nomen dederat alaudae.

4. HEINZEL et al., 1979, 106–7 (with figure).

5. Ibid., 204–5 (with figure).

6. Ibid., 198–9 (with figure).

7. Ibid., 198. Only the skylark (Alauda arvensis) appears in the survey of wild birds from Roman Britain published in PARKER, 1988.

8. For its song and appearance, see HEINZEL et al., 1979,


9. Cf. ROBINSON, 1975, 140–3.

10. VEGETIUS Epit. rei mil. II,13; 16.


12. ROBINSON, 1975, Figs.141–6.

13. Ibid., 140.

14. Ibid., Figs.141–3.

15. Ibid., Figs.62–74.

16. Ibid., Fig.81. Cf. Figs.27, 42–3, 45, 49.

17. Ibid., Pl.470.

18. SCHLEIERMACHER, 1984, 191–2.

19. ROBINSON, 1975, 141.

20. Loc. Cit.

21. CAESAR Bell. Gall. II,21. Cf. WEBSTER, 1985, 126. Certainly, one can read the passage with the sense that they did not have time to put on their helmets, let alone their crests.

22. TACITUS Hist. III,23, where soldiers pick up shields be- longing to an opposing legion and thereby conceal their true identity. For ansate panels on leather from Vindon- issa, see GANSSER-BURCKHARDT, 1942, Abb.60–1 & 70–1. On a shield cover from the Bonner Berg, an appli- qué patch bore a depiction of Minerva above the legend LEG I MPF (VAN DRIEL-MURRAY & GECHTER, 1983, 35–6, Taf.7,137.

23. TACITUS Hist. II,68 says legionaries were distinguished from praetorians by their insignia, although he does not make it clear whether this was from the type of crest, or simply its presence or absence; certainly, praetorians seem to be indicated on Trajan’s Column by the wearing of crests.

24. Protective covers: JOSEPHUS Bell. Iud. V,350; digmata:

VEGETIUS Epitoma rei militaris II,18. A possible ex- ample of digmata may be the lion painted on the Dura rectangular shield, perhaps the emblem of legio XVI Flavia Firma (BISHOP, 1990, 24).

25. Scene XL on the column, for example. Mainz column bases: ROBINSON, 1975, Pls.196–7 and 199.

26. It has been suggested – MAXFIELD, 1981, 99 – that the form of dona militaria known as the corniculum may have been some form of helmet decoration. Vegetius makes the point (II,13) that soldiers followed their centurion’s crest in much the same way as they followed their standard.

BIBLIOGRAPHY BISHOP, M.C. 1990: ‘On parade: status, display, and morale in the Roman army’, in H. Vetters & M. Kandler (eds.), Ak­ ten des 14. internationalen Limeskongresses 1986 in Carnuntum, Der römische Limes in Österreich 36, (Wien 1990), 21–30 VAN DRIEL-MURRAY, C. & GECHTER, M. 1983: ‘Funde aus der Fabrica der Legio I Minervia am Bonner Berg’, in Rheinische Ausgrabungen 23. Beiträge zur Archäo- logie des römischen Rheinlands IV, 1983, 1–83 GANSSER-BURCKHARDT, A. 1942: Das Leder und seine Verarbeitung im römischen Legionslager Vindonissa,


Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 1 1990

(Basel 1942) HAMMOND, N. & EVERETT, M. 1980: Birds of Britain and Europe, (London 1980) HEINZEL, R., FITTER, J., & PARSLOW 1979: The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East, ed.4, (London 1979) MAXFIELD, V.A. 1981: The Military Decorations of the Ro­ man Army, (London 1981) PARKER, A.J. 1988: ‘The birds of Roman Britain’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 7, 1988, 197–226 ROBINSON, H.R. 1975: The Armour of Imperial Rome, (Lon- don 1975) SCHLEIERMACHER, M. 1984: Römische Reitergrabsteine, (Bonn 1984) WEBSTER, G. 1985: The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D. Ed.3, (London 1985)